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Why Workplace Bullies Thrive: The Bystander Effect

What can be done to stop workplace bullying?

Since I first began writing about workplace bullies, I have received dozens of emails and comments from the victims of severe workplace bullying. A common factor in most cases is that bosses and coworkers typically turn a blind eye to the bullying.

Surveys have indicated that more than a third of all workers --- 37% -- have been the victims of workplace bullies, with only another 12% reporting that they have witnessed bullying. That's the problem! Many workers have likely witnessed bullying, but they don't interpret it as such. ("Oh, he's just teasing her.").

Social psychology has studied what is known as the "bystander effect" - the fact that when a person needs help, many observers simply stand idly by and don't assist the victim. Often, the more observers, the less helping because of what's known as "the diffusion of responsibility." ("Someone else will help." "It's not my responsibility.").

The first step in overcoming the bystander effect is to recognize that a problem exists and assistance is needed (Is the person lying on the ground injured, or just drunk?). Second, the bystander must believe that they can do something about it and help out.

Apply these to bullying: Because bullying has not surfaced as a major problem in the U.S. [although it occurs in epidemic proportions], many bystanders simply don't define an incident as bullying. This is particularly true of supervisors. Often, when victims complain to supervisors, it backfires, because the supervisor doesn't define the event as bullying. Instead, the victim is perceived as being "too sensitive - a complainer."

Second, because workplaces aren't informed enough about bullying, few workplaces have anti-bullying policies. In other words, bystanders need to know that they can do something about it, and they need to feel empowered (and supported) when they report bullying behavior.

Of course another reason bystanders might not intervene when bullying occurs is the fear that the bully will turn on them. But imagine if workplaces were better informed about bullying, and policies were in place to prevent it. Bystanders would be more inclined to report bullying behavior and/or support the victim, and they would be less fearful of retaliation.

Let's get the word out and stop bullying! Here are some resources:

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie (2009). The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed.), Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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