JoAnn Meyer and Victor Brown

From Bystander to “Upstander”

As a black man and a white woman, we’ve experienced both similar and unique diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges in the workplace. We’ve found greater understanding, insight and empathy during sometimes uncomfortable conversations while sharing our stories with each other. Now, we’re inviting others to listen in as we explore the role each of us can play in creating better workplaces.

Even as DEI managers strive for more accepting, respectful and engaging company cultures, an overreliance on big-bang efforts and training initiatives stymies real progress. These managers often have limited authority and time to support individual employees across the spectrum of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and those with different abilities, on a situation-by-situation basis as they attempt to “walk the talk” coming from upper management.

In a series of articles, we’ll offer suggestions to supplement system-wide DEI efforts with a force present throughout company offices, cubicles and meeting rooms willing to share responsibility for making the workplace more productive and fulfilling, helping each of us do better rather than just feel better.

Understanding Personal Risk and Loss

JoAnn Meyer: I attended my first company-sponsored diversity training in the mid-1990s. Workplace behavior has changed, but I’m struck at how much remains the same. At the beginning of that training, a former teammate apologized for not stopping an instructor’s repeated crude behavior during a class we attended a year earlier. He believed that, as the only woman present, it must have been very uncomfortable for me. Twenty years later, another man shared a story of failing to intervene as a colleague commented on a young woman’s appearance as she entered a company celebration. He also apologized the next day for his failure to act.

After countless EEO policies, DEI mission statements, and billions of dollars to consultants, we still don’t hold each other accountable for being disrespectful or engaging in hostile workplace behavior.

Vic Brown: Most people that are generally unaffected by the need for greater inclusion “feel” that something has been done and may even point to flattering metrics. It’s overwhelmingly alluring to return to their job description satisfied that progress is happening instead of validating that this good feeling is nothing more than just a feeling.

JM: Many people are empathetic, wanting to be “upstanders.” They want to do what is right when witnessing unfairness, disrespect and exclusion. Why is it so difficult to be an upstander rather than a remorseful bystander?

VB: Because it’s easier to feel better, even if it’s the next day or the next year, than it is to do better. When faced with the unknown – particularly when what is unknown introduces personal and professional risk – white, cis gendered, able-bodied people can seldom justify rejecting commonly held behavioral norms of a culture that caters to them.

JM: Right. When confronted with an offensive, questionable situation, most of us do a quick mental calculation concluding there’s more downside risk than upside potential for intervening. Honestly, though, as a woman in the oil and gas industry for 30 years, I didn’t always feel catered to even as an executive.

VB: Yes, but this is bigger than race, gender, sexual orientation or physical attributes when we talk about the loss and risk of being an upstander. If you’re part of an in-group or in a favored position, you also risk the loss of time, money and position in terms of moving up the ladder. You risk being excluded from projects and access that often determines career trajectory. There’s no way of knowing when, if and how much of that might happen.

Everyone Has Something to Lose

VB: Put simply, we all just want to get through our day, keep our jobs and collect our pay. Each of us risks losing valuable resources and comforts when we make an investment in long-term cultural change. No one, including the marginalized person, wants to upset the apple cart so their day or potentially their career is ruined.

JM: I understand. When I was a senior manager, protecting what I had acquired – position, stature, salary, access, etc. – was a factor in my decision making. I’m not proud of that and it was a dilemma as I was officially at the table, but not always part of the in-group.

VB: White women in the last decade have accrued a sizable amount of position and power in the workplace with a long way still to go. But generally, it’s the person that could benefit the most from workplace DEI that experiences the greatest potential risk by speaking up for themselves. Conversely, those that want to intercede also risk unknowable loss; they feel it even if they can’t quantify it.

When a potential upstander sees someone being marginalized, they often grapple with the fear of making a mistake that could cost them in some way compared to doing nothing which has a higher probability of allowing them to finish their day unscathed.

Minimizing Risk and Loss to Enact Incremental Change

JM: Improving DEI in the workplace seems, with some historical validation, almost insurmountable, big and complex. However, the workplace only exists as a compilation of individuals, so the workplace only becomes better as each of us does. As I said in a recent Forbes interview, ‘The organization is not going to be more inclusive until you are.’

In Pascal Dennis’s Getting the Right Things Done, he describes how simplifying complex challenges is key to achieving sustainable change. He says improving anything requires asking only three questions:

  1. Where do you want to go? To a more diverse, inclusive and equitable culture.
  2. Where are you now? Not where we want to be.
  3. What barriers prevent progress to where you want to be?

For each of us, there is an internal risk-aversion barrier preventing us from being an upstander.

VB: If you’re trying to change the situation that you see this person going through, you have to decide whether you can minimize your risk and increase the gains by intervening in the moment. Or can you minimize the risk and increase the gain more by conferring with that person after the fact and creating a plan for how to proceed and change what just happened? Either way, it’s work beyond what you normally would want to do at your job.

The question is, what is each of us willing to do to jumpstart DEI efforts to affect real change? How can we do better rather than just feel better?

To continue this conversation with JoAnn Meyer and Vic Brown, email them at or More information can be found at and

Author profile

JoAnn Meyer is a change consultant with 30 years in the energy sector. To learn more about Meyer, visit and connect with her on LinkedIn at

Author profile

Vic Brown is a content writer and strategist for tech, AEC and other sectors. To learn more about Brown, visit and connect with him on LinkedIn at

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