by Linda Crockett, MSW, RSW, SEP, CCPA, founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources
Employees who are targeted by a bully at work, report that their witnesses did not come forward despite their promises, ethics, oath to report abuse, company policies, and legislation. This includes leaders and staff. Yet bystanders are vital to the prevention, intervention, and repair or recovery of a work environment, and for each of those harmed. Without witnesses, millions of cases will go “unsubstantiated” and without appropriate interventions to protect the complainant(s), others in the workplace, and the overall safety and reputation of the organization.
“Bystander intervention is known to be the most effective strategy when dealing with harasser or bully.”
R Hitlan, K Schneider and A Estrada, Reactions to personal and bystander sexual harassment experiences (2002).
Targeted Employees ask or say: how can I make sense of the inaction? Do they even care? Does this impact them or are they just cold hearted? How do they sleep at night? I thought we were friends; I would never do this to them! This hurt me more than anything else.
The Bystander Effect in the Workplace
Dynamics within the workplace will either support or prevent fellow employees intervening to stop what is immature, destructive, unprofessional, harmful behaviour. It is therefore crucial for all employees, especially leaders, to become aware of their individual barriers! Then they can help witnesses overcome their reluctance to intervene. All employees watch their leaders for direction. It is important for leaders to set the tone of the work environment the wish to achieve.
Imagine witnessing John Doe report the abuse you also saw happen to the targeted employee. Next you see John Doe become the target of retaliation tactics and soon he is mysteriously terminated ‘without cause’. Toxic organizations will find ways to retaliate and clean house of those who do not fit in to their toxic soup! If you become a threat to their cover up – or denial – they will make it rough on you. Be sure you know how to protect yourself. Ask for help!
There are many reasons why bystanders at work are likely to ignore a colleague who is being bullied, sexually harassed, or otherwise mistreated, especially where the perpetrator has the authority to negatively impact their career and reputation.
Reasons for ‘Bystander Apathy’ at Work
Lack of – or Incorrect – Knowledge
- Training for all employees needs to be mandatory. There are many incorrect assumptions, myths, and a negative stigma preventing men and women from
- knowing what is happening or identifying the signs, symptoms, or risk factors,
- knowing what to do about it, where to go, who to speak to,
- understanding their own reactions, and working through their fears,
- having a safe process which protects their jobs and protect them from harm.
- Workplace bullying has been ‘normalized’ in the eyes of many bystanders. Especially when they repeatedly witness the offender being rewarded e.g., promoted, or given bonuses! And when the leader’s examples scream – > “stay silent’.
- Toxic leaders and/or staff have very keen skills to emotionally manipulate selected employees. They will weave a deceitful narrative to gain your support, silence, or even have you bully alongside them! Their chameleon – passive aggressive – charming manipulations have been buying millions of employee’s silences! Toxic employees slowly isolate people from those they are targeting. Many bystanders have no idea they are being groomed. Would you know if you were being groomed? Unless you have a devious mindset too, or you have been well trained, we doubt you will see it coming.
- Bystanders are groom to say things like “stay under the radar”, “don’t rock the boat”, “it’s not worth it, many have tried, just do your job’, “don’t’ be so sensitive!”, “leave if you don’t like it here”, “that’s just the way they are, suck it up”. Sound familiar?
- Why would a bystander feel safe reporting? Many have reported and then became the next target. Especially when the toxic employee(s) use implicit or explicit threats against anyone who helps the targeted employees! For example: suddenly the witness is under a performance management plan, or repeatedly (subtly) told they can be replaced.
- Why would a bystander report abuse when the complaint process has failed time and time again to protect others! Who would jump in when the sharks are circulating?
- What if the bystander has barely recovered from being the one who was targeted in the past? It is human nature to avoid trauma. Safety must come first. We must help them.
- Some employees (groomed or not) desire a specific (toxic) leader or colleagues’ approval. It may be because of their own fears (e.g., avoid conflict), or insecurities (toxic people can be very charming, popular, and outgoing), they may wish to be part of a popular group) or their goal is for advancement in the workplace. Identifying their actions, non-actions, choices, and decisions, will require self-honesty. Self honestly requires self-insight.
Bystanders play a crucial part within the dynamics of workplace psychological harassment and/or psychological violence. They have the power to end it (save businesses millions each year) or they can make it worse for those who are targeted (suicides, homicides, premature deaths). So far, we see which side of this negative power is winning. With decades of research providing evidence that business owners are losing millions of dollars each year due to unresolved bullying, it seems that ‘money is not doing the talking’ for thousands of business owners. What logic is this?
The voice and actions of witnesses is the solution. Instant improvements will be made when bystanders come forward. We must immediately review our policies, enhance the message of safety for employees to come forward e.g., leaders to role model ‘reporting abuse’ is what leaders want. Reward that!
Ensure that all leaders are on board with this commitment, increase protection for whistleblowers:
- develop a safe reporting process and include alternative reporting options, just in case the bully is their boss, the boss’s boss, HR, or safety officer.
- Use trauma informed, trained investigators with experience. Remove all risk of bias!
- Collaborate with qualified resources e.g., workplace consultations, trainers, coach/therapists. Whether cases are substantiated or not! Something happened!
- Do not stand by and watch – at very least -commit to documenting the details.
- Day one – make it clear you will not be involved in negative behaviours.
- Reframe from hurtful teasing, gossip, and ostracizing employees.
- Do not become part of a toxic clique. Toxic cliques are closed, negative, and harmful.
- Do not acknowledge, reply or emails, text messages, or photos, that could cause harm.
- Consider your internal and external “personal and professional” consequences e.g., guilt, shame, loss of safety or integrity, if you do not report abuse. This will impact your health, self-esteem, self-respect, self-trust, and reputation.
What Should Bystanders Do?
Self-assess and/or ask for confidential experienced support to help identify your personal barrier to reporting. Know that your feelings and reactions are normal, understandable, and that you need to share, be heard, and given the right attention. There are answers for everyone. We just may be in too deep to see them.
Document whether you plan to report the abuse or not. Things will likely change in the future and if you become part of an investigation, your notes will be needed to help you prove that “you are a credible employee”. Without notes you may forget critical details. This will protect you. Keep your notes a) up to date, b) safe at home, c) do not include client names or details, and d) -keep it all in one binder.
Review your policies, procedures, and take the steps that are outlined. However, if you are unsure, or you do not feel safe approaching anyone, seek outside support to develop a strategy that is best for you. We are available for you in Canada. If you are outside of Canada, we can refer you to someone in your area. If the case includes sexual assault, report it to the police. If the bullying is occurring online, report it to the owner of the website e.g., Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin, have processes for reporting incidents.
If You Would Like to Support the Employee(s) Who is Targeted
- Advise them that you saw what happened. Validate that this was difficult to see, unfair to the target, unacceptable abuse, unprofessional, and that they did not deserve that treatment.
- Remind them to document immediately, review their policies, and procedures, and to seek help. Tell them they are not alone. See their doctor, or a workplace coach/therapist who can guide them and help them with their feelings about it.
- Share this website with them. Suggest they become informed. It is unlikely that the bullying will just end. Denial or avoidance will never help. Meantime, there are safe resources and steps to become aware of.
The Role of the Leader
Leaders, it is your responsibility to keep your employees physically, and psychologically safe. It is more than the ethics! It is professional, it makes good business sense, and it is the law!
Make it mandatory for all leaders to take in depth trauma informed training on this topic.
Be clear on your own leadership style. Be sure to develop leadership skills that include of emotional intelligence (EI). EI should be your foundation. From there, build on other effective skills e.g., situational leadership skills. Weed out any unsuccess styles such as the authoritarian, dominating, abrasive, uncivil, or lassie faire leaders who are high risk factors for bullying and harassment. Ask your colleagues or staff for feedback!
Be sure to have a cohesive, competent, confident set of leaders. Train, monitor, and mentor your leaders. Set leaders up for success. Research says up to 74% of bullying at work is coming from top down. Fix that statistic and you fix it all! Leaders who practice zero tolerance will not tolerate from bottom up or laterally!
Bullying will be gone when all leaders make to so!
Update your behaviour policies to align with current legislation. Include examples of malicious complaints, examples of overt/covert retaliation, and list examples of consequences for breaching each of these policies. Follow through on these consistently! Your employees are watching.
Provide all employees with regular training on how to recognize these unlawful behaviours, including harassment, racism, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.
Does Your Company Need Leadership Training?
The Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources can teach our the triage model for complaints. Not all complaints need to be investigated, there are alternatives to prevention, intervention, and repair.
Good Business Sense
Trauma Informed preventions, interventions, and repair or recovery options, are very important to know about! All employees must feel safe when they report harmful behaviours. Safety is established when complainants and witnesses see it being addressed fairly, timely, accurately, consistently, skillfully, legally, and professionally.
The Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources offers all employees (leaders, first responders, groups, or individual staff) consults, assessments, training, advocacy, trouble shooting, and a coach/counselling combined resource to assist any employee or organization, at whatever stage they may be in e.g., wishing to prevent harm, intervene before or during harm. We also offer a variety of repair and/or recovery options. Our training is customized to meet the needs of each audience, industry, profession, and the unique concerns, trends, patterns, or cases within them.