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Calling it out: why bystanders are key to creating an anti-bullying culture

On average, workplace bullying affects around 15% of people, while some 83% of employees say they have witnessed workplace bullying. 

Although many of us like to think that we would interfere to stop it, up to 60% of employees – known as bystanders – report doing nothing when witnessing bullying.

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In a recent study, we showed bullying victims suffered less damage when they had helpful bystanders who actively intervened.

Conversely, victims in groups with bystanders who did nothing experienced greater detriments.

We suggest that this is because victims in these situations must not only deal with bullying, but also with understanding why others didn’t respond, highlighting the importance of bystander intervention. 


Bystander responses

Researchers have proposed that bystander responses to workplace bullying can be categorised in two ways: active versus passive, and constructive versus destructive.

The former describes how proactive the response is in addressing the bullying situation, while the latter shows whether the response is intended to improve or worsen the situation for targets.

This gives four types of bystanders. There are active-constructive bystanders, who proactively seek to improve the situation by reporting the bully or confronting them. There are also passive-constructive bystanders who don’t directly 'solve' the bullying, but listen to or sympathise with the target.

Passive-destructive bystanders, on the other hand, typically avoid the bullying and do nothing. While this may sound benign to some, targets may view passivity as condoning the bully’s actions.

Finally, active-destructive bystanders worsen the bullying situation by openly siding with the bully. They effectively become secondary bullies.


Failure to intervene

In a recent paper, we tried to delve deeper into the psychological processes underlying bystander behaviour. Bullying is often subjective, with people interpreting the same situation differently. So, we were interested in understanding what interpretations lead to active-constructive responses, and what barriers prevent workers acting.

For active-constructive responses to occur, employees must perceive that the incident is severe enough to warrant intervention. This can be ambiguous – is that offhand remark just a joke or something more?

Next, employees must recognise that the victim does not deserve what is happening to them. Work relationships are complex and in certain cases, such as when group performance is key, employees may not approve of others making mistakes or inconveniencing them and may perceive mistreatment as justified.

Finally, employees should feel that they are able to intervene effectively.

There are many cases where employees wish to act but don’t feel able to, such as if the bully is a supervisor, or if previous attempts to intervene have failed.


Creating an anti-bullying workplace

Organisations have a key part to play in stopping bullying and should have anti-bullying policies that are easily accessible by employees.

These policies should clearly define what bullying is and have transparent, confidential processes for reporting incidents that are either directly experienced or witnessed.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to encourage bystander intervention, there are things you can try to help you better understand a target’s situation and, hopefully, become an active-constructive bystander.

Research suggests that perspective taking, or trying to see things through another point of view, can be beneficial.

Importantly, organisations should try to find the root causes of bullying and if there is anything they can change to reduce it. For example, high workload and poor communication may contribute to a bullying culture.

Organisations whose members can reflect on problem areas can then take appropriate actions to tackle them. Not only could this reduce bullying, but it can also improve overall workplace wellbeing.

Kara Ng is presidential fellow at Alliance Manchester Business School