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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t – The Role of Bystanders in Workplace Bullying

8th Jul 2021

People who witness an abuse of power that requires intervention, but decide not to step in to help, are categorised as engaging in ‘bystanderism’ (Hoo, 2004).

With workplace bullying, bystanders are crucial in supporting the well-being of those who are bullied and influencing how long bullying behaviours may occur for, due to their ability to intervene or empower a perpetrator (Madden & Loh, 2020).

Watching the Work World Go By

Research suggests that around 80% of people have witnessed bullying behaviour in the workplace (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006). However, not all bystanders are made equal. For instance, Paull et al. (2012) have noted the following range of potential bystander types that may exist, including:

  • The Abdicating Bystander – a bystander who allows bullying behaviour to occur without intervening, despite their ability and power to take action;
  • The Empathising Bystander – a bystander who quietly identifies with the target of bullying, but takes no action;
  • The Instigating Bystander – a bystander who helps to create a situation to allow someone to bully others.

Left Alone, Left Behind

Rayner et al. (2002) found in their research that up to 70% of bystanders in their sample experienced stress from witnessing bullying. As a result of this stress, 22% ultimately left their jobs, due to the workplace environment, with bullying behaviours integrated into a toxic everyday working life (Rayner et al., 2002).

In addition to the stressors from the working environment, men and women who were bystanders to bullying at work have been found to have increased risks of developing symptoms of depression 18 months later (Emdad et al. 2013).

By staying at an organisation after those who are bullied decide to depart, bystanders can be affected by ‘survivors syndrome’, experiencing anxiety, sadness and guilt in their subsequent working life (Spagnoli & Balducci, 2016).

To fill the void of their departed colleagues, bystanders may subsequently be given a higher workload, fuelling their stress cycle and potentially leading to increased levels of vulnerability to workplace bullying themselves (Spagnoli & Balducci, 2016).

Despite this perceived injustice, they may work even harder to avoid being bullied in the future like their fallen former colleagues (Meier et al. 2013).

Taking a Stand

There are a range of practical ways that a bystander may be able to intervene in the bullying process at work to support targets and the work environment around them. For instance, bystander intervention programmes can be introduced in organisations, teaching techniques and strategies that can be applied to bullying scenarios, such as asking colleagues to stop and knowing the resources available to them (Swan, 2015).

Alternatively, bystanders can engage in witness corroboration, reacting immediately to support targets with evidence to suggest wrongdoing at work (Coyne et al., 2019). By usually being able to outnumber supervisors, bystanders can collectively be supportive figures for targets to confide in, as well as representatives who can speak out on their behalf (Coyne et al., 2019).

Despite these tangible interventions, bystanders may need support to be prepared to challenge the status quo in the first place. For instance, bystanders with low self-efficacy, that is, their belief in their capability to influence events (Bandura, 1994), are less likely to support targets affected by workplace bullying due to fear of repercussions (Hellemans et al., 2017). Additionally, bystanders appear more likely to intervene in bullying scenarios when a target is seen more as a friend than just a colleague (Madden & Loh, 2020).

These conditions can be harnessed for the good, forcing organisational decision-makers to consider investing in team-building exercises to create stronger colleague relationships and to coordinate trainings to empower bystanders. This may help them to understand the resources available and how they can safely intervene in workplace bullying with courage, conviction and confidence.

If you have had to leave your organisation due to workplace bullying, or have been affected by any of the topics mentioned above, please feel free to contact us via our e-mentoring service for a confidential conversation.


Written by Jason David Phillips

Jason is a former PR and Communications professional. He is an Organisational Psychologist and Coach working to support the well-being of professionals through his writing at BulliesOut.




Bandura, A. (1994).  Self-efficacy. In Ramachaudran, V.S. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press.

Coyne, I., Gopaul, A.M., Campbell, M., Pankasz, A., Garland, R., & Cousans, F. (2019). Bystander Responses to Bullying at Work: The Role of Mode, Type and Relationship to Target. Journal of Business Ethics, 157, 813-827. doi: 10.1007/s10551-017-3692-2

Emdad, R., Alipour, A., Hagberg, J., & Jensen, I.B. (2013). The impact of bystanding to workplace bullying on symptoms of depression among women and men in industry in Sweden: an empirical and theoretical longitudinal study. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 86, 709-716. doi: 10.1007/s00420-012-0813-1

Hellemans, C., Dal Cason, D., & Casini, A. (2017). Bystander Helping Behavior in Response to Workplace Bullying. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 76(4), 135-144. doi: 10.1024/1421-0185/a000200

Hoo, S.S. (2004). We Change the World by Doing Nothing. Teacher Education Quarterly, 31(1), 199-211. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23478430

Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2006). Take This Job and … : Quitting and Other Forms of Resistance to Workplace Bullying. Communication Monographs, 73(4), 406-433. doi: 10.1080/03637750601024156

Madden, C., & Loh, J.M.I. (2020). Workplace cyberbullying and bystander helping behaviour. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 31(19), 2434-2458. doi: 10.1080/09585192.2018.1449130

Meier, L.L., Semmer, N.K., & Spector, P.E. (2013). Unethical Work Behavior as a Stressor. In Giacalone, R.A., & Promislo, M.D. (Eds.), Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior: Implications for Individual Well-Being (pp. 168-179). Oxon: Routledge.

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, 351–366. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-7941.2012.00027.x

Rayner, C., Hoel, H., & Cooper, C. (2002). Workplace bullying. What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do?. London: Taylor and Francis.

Spagnoli, P., & Balducci, C. (2016). Do high workload and job insecurity predict workplace bullying after organizational change?. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 10(1), 2-12. doi: 10.1108/IJWHM-05-2016-0038

Swan, S.L. (2015). Bystander Interventions. Wisconsin Law Review, 2015(6), 975-1048. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/20665572/BYSTANDER_INTERVENTIONS

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