why most people don’t do anything when they see it – and how to act

Imagine you are at work and you see a co-worker repeatedly bullying another co-worker. What would you do? While many of us like to think we would step in to stop it, surveys show that most employees who witness bullying situations, called bystanders, don’t react in a way that would help the victim.

Instead, up to 60% of employees in some places say they do nothing when they witness bullying. But why is this the case and what are the consequences? Our recent research provides important clues.

Workplace bullying occurs when an employee is subjected to repeated behaviors that harass, exclude, or negatively affect someone’s job. This can range from overt acts of physical violence to more ambiguous behaviors, such as mocking, insulting, or socially excluding someone.

Bullying can seriously affect the mental and physical health of victims, with extreme cases leading to self-harm or suicide. On average, workplace harassment affects around 15% of people, although some sectors, such as healthcare and higher education, have higher rates.

The impact of doing nothing

Workplace bullying has traditionally been viewed as a problem between victim and bully – and dealt with accordingly. But bullying often happens in front of others. Surveys show that up to 83% of employees in some organizations say they have witnessed workplace bullying.

It’s troubling. Witnessing harassment can harm the well-being of bystanders, creating fear of how they might be treated in the future.

But the reaction of passers-by can either help or worsen the situation of the victims. In our recent study, we asked employees of a major university to answer questions about their experiences of bullying, either as a victim or a bystander.

We showed that victims of bullying suffered less harm when they had helpful bystanders who actively intervened. Conversely, victims in groups with bystanders who did nothing experienced greater harm.

We suggest it’s because victims in these situations not only have to deal with the bullying, but also have to figure out why others haven’t responded, which is an added stress. It seems to us that bystanders are essential in helping to create an anti-bullying work culture.

Researchers have proposed that bystander responses to workplace bullying can be categorized in two ways: active versus passive, and constructive versus destructive. The former describes how proactive the response is in resolving the bullying situation, while the latter indicates whether the response aims to improve or worsen the target’s situation.

This gives four types of spectators. There are active and constructive bystanders, who proactively and directly seek to improve the bullying situation, for example by reporting the bully or confronting them. There are also passive-constructive bystanders who do not directly “solve” the bullying, but listen or sympathize with the target.

Diagram showing the four types of spectators.
Four types of spectators.
Author provided

Passive-destructive bystanders, on the other hand, typically avoid bullying and “do nothing.” While this may seem benign to some, targets may see passivity as an excuse for the bully’s actions. Finally, active destructive bystanders actively escalate the bullying situation, such as by overtly siding with the bully or creating situations where the bully can pick on people. They effectively become secondary bullies.

The Psychology Behind Observation

Why do so many people not intervene when they witness something they know is wrong or harmful? The most famous theory to explain the phenomenon, known as the bystander effect, was inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese. Kitty was a young woman from 1960s New York who was stabbed to death outside her apartment building as 38 residents watched from their windows. Initially it was reported that not a single person intervened or called the police, showing passive-destructive responses – although this story and the theory itself have been disputed.

That said, the effect seems to hold in more ambiguous situations, such as bullying, which do not constitute a medical emergency. The bystander effect explains their actions by suggesting that individuals are less likely to help when there are other people present. It makes us feel less personally responsible for acting, especially in ambiguous situations.

In another recent article, we tried to delve deeper into the psychological processes underlying spectator behavior. Bullying is often subjective, with people interpreting the same situation differently. We therefore wanted to understand which interpretations lead to active-constructive responses, which are the most useful.

For active and constructive responses to occur, employees must perceive that the incident is serious enough to warrant intervention. It can be ambiguous – is this flippant remark just a joke or something more?

Second, employees must perceive that the victim does not deserve what is happening to them. Work relationships are complex and in some cases, such as when group performance is critical, employees may resent others making mistakes or getting in their way and may perceive mistreatment as justified.

Finally, employees must perceive that they are capable of intervening effectively. There are many instances where employees want to take action but feel unable to do so, such as if the bully is a supervisor or if previous attempts to intervene have failed.

To take part

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to encouraging bystander intervention, there are a few things you can try to help you better understand a target’s situation and hopefully become an active bystander and constructive. Research suggests that taking a step back, or trying to see things from another perspective, can be beneficial.

Boss lady manager shouting pulling sad stressed male worker.
Some bystanders facilitate intimidation.
fizkes / Shutterstock

Experiments have shown that participants who were asked to take the perspective of an aggressor are less likely to agree that misconduct took place than participants who were asked to take the point view of the victim.

Organizations have a key role to play in stopping bullying and ideally should have anti-bullying policies that are easily accessible to employees. These policies should clearly define bullying and have transparent and confidential processes for reporting incidents that are either directly experienced or observed.

Anti-bullying policies and initiatives must be approved by senior management. This would ultimately help employees feel safe to speak up.

It is important for organizations to try to find the root causes of bullying and if there is anything they can change to reduce it. For example, a high workload and poor communication can contribute to a culture of bullying.

Organizations whose members can reflect on problems can then take appropriate action to resolve them. Not only could this reduce harassment, but it can also improve overall well-being at work.

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