The Bystander Effect of Workplace Bullying

We like to think that we leave bullying behind when we leave high school, but the reality is that most of us probably know someone who has been the victim of workplace harassment. As many as 70 percent of women and 45 percent of men have been victims of sexual harassment at some point in their careers. And surveys suggest that nearly 40 percent of all workers have experienced workplace bullying.

How Common is the Bystander Effect?

Only 12 percent of workers report seeing workplace bullying. This means that bullying in the workplace is underreported. In other words, many workers likely see bullying, but they don’t recognize it as a problem. For example, if an employee sees their supervisor demeaning another’s work, they might think, “Oh, he is just teasing her.” This is a problem.

It also is an instance of the “bystander effect,” a term used in social psychology that refers to observers who stand idly by when a person needs help. The more observers there are, the less likely they are to help, because of something known as “diffusion of responsibility.” (i.e., someone else will take care of it.)

Experts say that the vast majority of workplace bullies are bosses. Managers and supervisors are much more likely to verbally, even sexually, abuse their employees than a coworker. Bullies crave power and control, and often struggle with emotional instability.

Workplace bullies may choose their victims based on confidence or achievements outside of the workplace. At their cores, most bullies are insecure about their own performance and are threatened by independence.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the targets of office bullies are most likely to be the employees who are the most competent, experienced, and popular with their coworkers. The majority of bullies, almost 70%, are men. Male bullies target women much more often (57% of the time) than other men. Female bullies target women about 70% of the time and rarely bully men.

The biggest problem with workplace bullying is often that coworkers know it exists, but do nothing to stop it. If this seems outrageous, consider this: What did you do the last time you passed by a car accident? Did you pull over and make sure everyone was OK? Or did you glance over and continue on with your day, thankful it wasn’t you? Usually, we’ll ignore it and assume the authorities are on the way, especially if helping poses a threat to our own safety.

This is the bystander effect in action. People who know about workplace bullying are often sympathetic and kind. They may offer support and listen to the victim. But they won’t go out of their way to end the harassment, because they fear for their own job security.

How Can We Stop the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect is a part of human nature. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. The first step in addressing the problem is acknowledging its existence. If you notice someone being harassed at work, don’t disregard it as teasing or “the price of admission.” Approach them, and ask them if they need help.

Businesses must also work to adopt anti-bullying policies. Policies to address bullying are rare. While most workplaces have policies that address specific types of abuse (such as sexual harassment), a blanket policy covering threats or intimidation is not as common. Bystanders need to feel empowered to take action with the human resources department if they observe bullying in the workplace.

Having a uniform anti-bullying policy will help employees feel less intimidated about reporting. Workplaces can rid themselves of bullies if employees don’t fear retaliation from management. This will help companies retain their best and most experienced employees.