Workplace bullying and the role of bystanders

By Dr Kara Ng & Professor Karen Niven
Updated 9 March 2022

Updates: session recording added

We often treat bullying as a two-person problem between the perpetrator and target. However, workplace bullying can often happen in front of others. On 6 October 2021 our Fellows Forum welcomed Dr Kara Ng, Presidential Fellow in Organisational Psychology, and Professor Karen Niven, Professor of Organisational Psychology, from Alliance Manchester Business School, to examine the role of bystanders and how they could be an overlooked aspect of understanding bullying.

We heard the latest academic research on workplace bullying, a serious social issue affecting many organisations and sectors, and Kara and Karen sought to answer several important questions:

  • What exactly is workplace bullying?
  • What causes it?
  • What are its effects?
  • What has been done?
  • How has COVID affected employees’ experiences with bullying?

The general consensus among researchers is that the work environment (e.g., organisational culture, job characteristics) is the main reason why bullying occurs.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying (WPB) is a social issue with unique characteristics: ‘‘harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. . . . it has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g., weekly) and over a period of time (e.g., about six months). Bullying is an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts’’ (Einarsen et al., 2020).

The effects of bullying

“I started buying things to kind of fill that . . . to feel good. I also put on about 45 pounds, I would just eat and eat and eat.”

Bullying has adverse effects on mental health including depression, stress, mood swings, self-confidence, anxiety. In extreme cases, bullying can lead to self-harm, PTSD and/or suicide. Bullying can also cause eventual harm to a victim’s physical health and lead to behavioural changes. Bullying can also lead to increased use of sleeping pills and other sedatives

“It took me 5 years and extensive therapy to recover sufficiently to be able to function in an organizational environment and to learn how to control the PTSD and anxiety attacks.”


Unique features, differing from ‘traditional’ WPB:

  • Acts remain accessible for long periods, often to a larger audience – ‘trail of evidence’
  • Greater subjectivity because of online mediums
  • Often indirect, with parties being in separate physical locations
  • Perpetrators may be anonymous
  • Breaches home/work boundary

The importance of bystanders

Bullying is a social process, but we’ve mainly focused on the target and perpetrator. What about the others?

  • The ‘silent majority: 30-80% of employees have reported witnessing bullying
  • A move to a new understanding of bystanders as empowered, active agents

“If I hadn’t had those people, I don’t know how at the end of two years I might have come out feeling…”

A typology to understand bystanders

  • We can categorise bystanders along two dimensions: (Paull et al., 2008)
    • 1. Active or Passive
  • Even passive responses can be seen as condoning bullying!
    • 2. Constructive or Destructive
  • Constructive responses can buffer harmful effects of bullying
  • Importance of encouraging active bystander intervention early on, when group norms are not set
  • Encouraging taking the target’s perspective?

Professional experiences

At the beginning of the workshop, we asked our participants to answer some quick questions about their professional experiences with workplace bullying.

The average employee in my organisation knows about our workplace bullying policy

The average

Workplace bullying issues are resolved well in my organisation


We organised breakout rooms and asked participants to read a scenario and discuss the three questions below. We have summarised points from all groups.


For your job, you regularly work with other colleagues in a team. In your team is Alex, who joined the company at around the same time as you did. You feel like Alex has never quite fit into the group. When having lunch, your other teammates don’t invite Alex to eat with them and often don’t invite him to after-work events. Some of your teammates have been gossiping and speculating about Alex’s personal life.

You are at a team meeting and Alex has forgotten to do their part in a client project. A couple of your teammates make quiet remarks about Alex’s intelligence.

How do you think people should respond to this scenario?

  • Try to mediate to understand why perpetrators feel this way towards Alex
  • Try to make Alex feel included
    • Team events where everyone is invited, but difficult to manage informal relationships
    • Speak up – tell perpetrators that their behaviours are inappropriate.
    • Approach ‘main’ bully and hope ‘side-kicks’ will stop.
  • Tell manager if bullying escalates.
  • Acknowledge the issues within the team and discuss these, e.g., asking team members why they are excluding Alex (perhaps after the meeting without Alex present)
  • Call out the behaviours as unacceptable
  • Challenge the quiet remarks made directly with those who made them, perhaps after the meeting
  • Ask if Alex is okay after the meeting (e.g., open question ‘how do you feel the meeting went?’) and discuss their role in the project to try to understand them better
  • Try to break down barriers to bring Alex back into the team; the manager must take an active role here

How do you think people actually respond?

  • Keep to themselves
  • Ignore the bullying and hope that it goes away
  • People may not know what to do and ‘back up’ perpetrator, especially if perpetrator is popular or has power
  • Often people do nothing: may deny existence of issues; may focus on operational issues and neglect emotional/relational issues; may not realise the impact such behaviour might have on Alex; may feel peer pressure not to respond
  • People may join in during the meeting (e.g., due to wanting to belong, issues around the team’s culture/normative behaviour)
  • People might also speculate/gossip outside of the meeting as to the cause of the issues with Alex and/or about their personal life
  • Responses are likely to depend on industry, the team’s culture, who is chairing the meeting, and how others are reacting

What do you think the effects would be (for Alex, for the team, and for the person enacting the response) of both types of responses?

  • Bullying will escalate
  • ‘Gulf’ increases between Alex and team
  • In the short-term, Alex is likely to be hurt. But if the situation is not dealt with well, the outcomes will become increasingly adverse for Alex: the situation is likely to escalate further and Alex’s position may become untenable
  • This will also be detrimental for the team as well, divisions will harm performance/wellbeing
  • Consequences for the perpetrator(s) could also be damaging, as they may eventually face investigations if the situation escalates further
  • Even responses which are well intentioned might backfire, e.g., if an issue is raised in front of Alex without prior consent this might embarrass Alex. A mishandled attempt might also antagonise the team and escalate things further

How to encourage active constructive bystanders?

Kara outlined a framework for understanding bystander responses, based on two dimensions: Active to Passive and Constructive to Destructive (figure below). The ideal responses would involve active constructive responses. Participants discussed the barriers to employees behaving in this way and what organises can do to encourage active constructive behaviours.

Citation: Paull, M., Omari, M., & Standen, P. (2012). When is a bystander not a bystander? A typology of the roles of bystanders in workplace bullying. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 50(3), 351-366.

What are the barriers to bystanders engaging in ‘active constructive’ responses?

  • Fears: of becoming a target yourself, of reprisals for oneself, of making the situation worse for the victim
  • Insecurity of employment (esp. among temporary workers)
  • Organisational culture/lack of psychological safety
  • Don’t anticipate any (positive) impact of intervening (e.g., assumption that management will ultimately do nothing)
  • Very hard to tackle if perpetrator(s) are senior or more established (power dynamics) – who do you even submit a grievance to?

How can organisations encourage constructive responses?

  • Huge role for leaders: “it starts at the top and needs to be embedded”; “need to lead by example”. Management need to be committed to interventions and show active support; interventions/training need to be mandatory attendance
  • Organisations often have ‘tick box’ exercises investing in creating policies that identify bullying behaviour. What they need to do is to invest more in actually educating staff on strategies for tackling and challenging bullying behaviours in a safe and compassionate way (and in identifying the causes and sources of bullying behaviour)
  • Anti-bullying interventions need to be more than an online course
  • It’s about building a culture of psychological safety in which the calling out of bullying behaviours is not only acceptable but normalised
  • At a local level, can develop ‘team respect charters’ – a formalised charter that represents what we as a team believe is acceptable and unacceptable
  • There should be safe channels for speaking out and taking action when issues are identified: ‘Speak up guardians’, ‘persons of trust’ (confidential advisors) – they could be colleagues rather than supervisors? This would be a skilled role so will need training
  • Even where anonymity and confidentiality cannot be assured, respect can be

Pre-workshop questions

How can you encourage witnesses to speak up against a bully rather than pretending they didn’t see/hear anything, especially where the bullying is not serious enough to warrant an eventual dismissal and people are likely to have to continue to work together?

As we have covered in our workshop and discussions, encouraging bystanders is a very sensitive and complex issue. There are many factors dependent on the organisation and/or sector. In our final activity, ‘Discussion: How to encourage active constructive bystanders?’, participants brainstormed ideas on how to encourage speaking up and other active constructive responses.

From where/when does bullying behaviour manifest itself? Do organisations recruit bullies or do employees become bullies in their employment?

Bullying can emerge from a variety of situations. Some bullies may have formal power over targets that they abuse, such as a supervisor bullying their subordinates. In other cases, bullying often emerges between colleagues when conflict over tasks escalate to personal attacks.

The question of whether bullies are recruited or developed in organisations is a tricky one. There is some research indicating personality characteristics that predispose people to perpetrate negative behaviours, but the general consensus among researchers is that the work environment (e.g., organisational culture, job characteristics) is the main reason why bullying occurs.


Opportunities for collaboration

CIPD viewpoint

Organisations should not tolerate any form of unfair treatment such as bullying or harassment. Though some of the reasons for this are obvious (legal and reputational risk, work and underperformance), employers also have a duty of care to ensure that employees work in a safe environment, are treated with respect, and enjoy quality working life.

Workers subjected to bullying or harassment can experience high stress, loss of confidence and motivation and higher levels of sickness absence, all of which may lead to increased staff turnover and less productive teams.

Employers should have clear policies on dignity and respect at work, highlighting the behaviours expected by all employees. Managers at all levels should understand their role in leading by example, challenging inappropriate behaviour, and responding promptly and consistently to any complaints of bullying or harassment.

All allegations of bullying and harassment should be taken seriously and managed consistently, with formal action taken where necessary.

Recommendations for employers

  • Put in place a robust and well-communicated policy that clearly articulates the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work, and the behaviours expected.
  • Build an inclusive workplace climate based on tolerance and acceptance of every individual. Positive relationships at work should be underpinned by an open and collaborative management style, good teamworking, and healthy interactions with peers and managers.
  • Use training and guidance to ensure that senior leaders and managers role-model and champion the correct behaviours.
  • Ensure there are mechanisms for personal accountability, particularly for those in positions of influence or those with discretionary or decision-making power.
  • Train line managers to manage people properly, including spotting and dealing promptly with inappropriate behaviour, conflict or other situations that could escalate into harassment and bullying.
  • Implement procedures and training to ensure there are clear procedures for making a complaint. All complaints should be investigated fully and formal grievances resolved in line with the Acas Code of Practice on grievance and disciplinary procedures.
  • Treat formal allegations of harassment, bullying or any intimidating behaviour as a disciplinary offence.
  • People should be encouraged/rewarded to play their part in making the policies a reality and to challenge inappropriate behaviour.
sources cited

Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. (2020). The concept of bullying and harassment at work: The European tradition. In Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (Eds.), Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in theory, research, and practice (3rd ed., pp. 3-41). CRC Press. 

O’Donnell, S. M., & MacIntosh, J. A. (2016). Gender and workplace bullying: Men’s experiences of surviving bullying at work. Qualitative health research, 26(3), 351-366. 

Samnani, A. K., & Singh, P. (2012). 20 years of workplace bullying research: a review of the antecedents and consequences of bullying in the workplace. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17(6), 581-589. 

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Hurley, J., Hutchinson, M., Bradbury, J., & Browne, G. (2016). Nexus between preventive policy inadequacies, workplace bullying, and mental health: Qualitative findings from the experiences of Australian public sector employees. International journal of mental health nursing, 25(1), 12-18. 

Kline, R., & Lewis, D. O. (2018). The price of fear: estimating the financial cost of bullying to the NHS in England. 

Nielsen, M.B., Hoel, H., Zapf, D. & Einarsen, S. (2015) Exposure to aggression in the workplace: Implications for health and wellbeing. In S.Clarke, T.M. Probst, F.W. 

Farley, S., Coyne, I., & D’Cruz, P. (2021). Cyberbullying at work: Understanding the influence of technology. Concepts, Approaches and Methods, 233-263. 

Iida, M., Sasaki, N., Kuroda, R., Tsuno, K., & Kawakami, N. (2021). Increased COVID-19-related workplace bullying during its outbreak: a 2-month prospective cohort study of full-time employees in Japan. Environmental and Occupational Health Practice, 3(1). 

Chatziioannidis, I., Bascialla, F. G., Chatzivalsama, P., Vouzas, F., & Mitsiakos, G. (2018). Prevalence, causes and mental health impact of workplace bullying in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit environment. BMJ open, 8(2), e018766. 

Carter, M., Thompson, N., Crampton, P., Morrow, G., Burford, B., Gray, C., & Illing, J. (2013). Workplace bullying in the UK NHS: a questionnaire and interview study on prevalence, impact and barriers to reporting. BMJ open, 3(6), e002628.

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