No such thing as an innocent bystander in workplace bullying

by Elizabeth Barnard14 Aug 2012

New academic research has shed light on the roles bystanders play in workplace bullying – 13 types of bystanders were identified, ranging from the aggressive instigating bystander to the submitting bystander, who ends up becoming a substitute for the victim.

The study from Murdoch University and Edith Cowan University aimed to better understand how co-workers can impact conflict. “Bystanders are not incidental, but are an integral part of the context of bullying, with some siding with the bully or victim, either actively or passively,” researcher Dr Megan Paull said. “People don’t always appreciate the impact of their actions, or inactions. For example, a social reaction to walking into a room where colleagues are laughing is to laugh along without thinking. But you could be adding fuel to someone’s embarrassment,” she added.

When HR investigates claims of workplace bullying, it pays to take time to firmly establish the context of the incidents, and note that competition and rivalry are natural in work and social relationships. “It’s not a cut and dried issue, but we’re trying to raise awareness and make organisations and individuals aware of the responsibilities they have to respect and appreciate the subtleties of human relationships and psychological well-being,” Dr Paull said.

The full list of spectrum types included:

  • Instigating Bystander
  • Manipulating Bystander
  • Collaborating Bystander
  • Facilitating Bystander
  • Abdicating Bystander
  • Avoiding Bystander
  • Intervening Bystander
  • Defusing Bystander
  • Defending Bystander
  • Empathising Bystander
  • Sympathising Bystander
  • Succumbing Bystander
  • Submitting Bystander

Dr Paull also cautioned investigators to consider that what might appear as bullying to an outsider, could be fine with the target of the act. “Awareness can lead managers and staff to develop effective strategies for diffusing potential situations. Studies have shown that people who recognise their roles, and have the tools to act, can make a positive difference,” she said.

Workplace bullying has become a matter of concern on a national level, and in May 2012, workplace relations minister Bill Shorten requested a House of Representatives report on the issue. Submissions are currently being received.


  • by Bernie Althofer 16/08/2012 9:45:23 AM

    Changes to Work Health and Safety legislation that has occurred and continues to occur due to the harmonisation processes might cause officers and workers to rethink organisational policies and procedures designed to prevent, detect and resolve workplace bullying.

    If there is potential for a co-worker (read bystander/witness) to be drawn into an investigation and possible prosecution because they were present and 'did nothing' to prevent the breach of work health and safety, then it might mean that individual understanding of how the policies and procedures relate to them might need to be re-assessed.

    It is one thing to have a policy and procedure, but it is another thing having it implemented in the manner intended. Unfortunately, for those organisations who send out email notification of a change of policy or procedure, it is possible that even bystanders/witnesses do not get the opportunity to clarify exactly what their duty of care requirements are in relation to preventing or reporting workplace bullying.

    As targets become more skilled in documenting details about the incident, and including witness details, and present this evidence to their legal advisors, co-workers and even organisations need to be aware that whether they like it or not, they may be directly or indirectly involved, and may face the possibility of responding in a Court, Commission or Tribunal.

    Everyone has to understand the legal implications regarding their role as a bystander, so it is imperative that every organisation maintain currency of knowledge regarding legal decisions in this area, and ensure that all officers and workers are provided with this information.

  • by Erika Ford 20/08/2012 4:48:58 PM

    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

  • by Bernie Althofer 21/08/2012 7:35:36 AM

    In the ideal world, witnesses and bystanders would 'step in' in every case where bullying occurred. However, given the complexities of issues involved and the potential for some witnesses and bystanders themselves to be targeted and even vilified, getting them to be involved is not as easy as some people would like.

    In organisations where there is tolerance and even acceptance to any form of counterproductive behaviours, and where organisational cultures are such that a climate of fear exists because of issues such as job security, one should not expect a sudden change in practices.

    However, continual education using a range of strategies such as mock courts, and integration of recent Court, Commission and Tribunal decisions into those presentations, will allow workers and officers to understand the personal implications and the need for intervention.

    Getting decision makers to change the way 'training' is delivered might be a bit harder unless there is value adding.

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