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Bystanders to Upstanders: Speaking Out Against Bullying

What keeps witnesses of workplace bullying from speaking out?

Key points

  • The majority of bystanders who witness a colleague being bullied do not report the abuse.
  • Bystanders fall into one of four categories: Passive constructive, passive destructive, active constructive, and active destructive.
  • Bystanders sometimes engage in schadenfreude, or the act of taking pleasure in the pain and harm of another.
  • Strong in-group norms cause insiders to turn a blind eye when outsiders are abused on the job.
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash
Source: Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

You witness a fellow employee being bullied on the job. The administration berates her, colleagues gossip behind her back, peers sabotage her work, and she is regularly excluded from meetings and social events. As a bystander, do you say something?

Research says probably not. According to a 2015 (Wortley) study, examining 40 types of misconduct observed on the job, workplace bullying was witnessed the most frequently, yet only reported 32 percent of the time. This leaves targets of psychological terrorism to fend for themselves, as rumors dismantle their reputation and colleagues they once called friends turn their backs, often joining the ranks of the oppressor.

Why don’t more bystanders of workplace abuse speak up for justice?

Types of Bystanders

Bystanders are diverse in their thinking, actions, and propensity to come to the aid of those under attack, yet they typically fall into one of four categories. Passive constructive bystanders see the bullying, feel remorse, yet do not take active steps to intervene. Passive destructive bystanders, on the other hand, witness the bullying yet dismiss it as “not their problem.” In contrast, active constructive bystanders witness the bullying and consequently speak out against the abuse, often placing themselves in harm's way in the name of justice. Active destructive bystanders, however, witness the terrorization of a fellow employee and join in on the attacks, thus intensifying the bullying and causing the victim elongated suffering (Ng, Niven, & Notelaers, 2021).

Why Bystanders Turn a Blind Eye or Join In on the Abuse

Employees who speak up when they observe a colleague being bullied cite a number of reasons for transforming themselves from bystanders to upstanders, contending they saw it as their ethical responsibility, believed in the power of management to correct the wrong, were able to identify a person whom which to report the bullying, and felt confident leadership would support their efforts to protect the victim. In contrast, bystanders who chose to remain silent believed they would be ignored or retaliated against for speaking out and shared stories of their organization’s sorted history of turning a blind eye to incivility and unethical behaviors (Wortley, 2015).

Most of us, however, long to view ourselves in a positive light, believing we are kind, good, and gracious. In order to keep this identity intact, bystanders often entertain a type of moral disengagement, in which they convince themselves the bullying they witnessed was not that bad or the victim of the abuse had it coming and deserved it. Spinning such tales enables bystanders to let themselves off the hook and avoid the terrible truth that they are making a conscious choice to turn their back on an employee in peril, and that their silence is directly contributing to the victim’s harm (Sonenshein, 2007).

Unfortunately, something even more sinister is transpiring inside some of the bystanders who refuse to be upstanders. These cogs in the wheels of injustice are engaging in what researchers call schadenfreude or the act of taking pleasure in the pain and harm of another (Li, McAllister, & Gloor 2019). The reasons for the torture are diverse. There are what Babiak and Hare (2007) describe as “snakes in suits” who lack empathy and experience joy from the thrill of the attack.

In-group norms may also be at play. Bystanders with high group loyalty are less likely to stick up for a bullied employee they consider an outsider. More tragic, groups that enforce strict norms of behavior, discourage dissenting views, and are reluctant to let outsiders in, are highly unlikely to speak up when an employee outside their group is under attack. Instead, they view the potential elimination of the victim as a way to silence diverse opinions and enhance their social power (Ng, Niven, & Hoel, 2020).

The Role of Culture in Bystanders’ Response

It is tempting as victims of workplace bullying to attribute the abuse to a specific person and pathology, zooming in on her destructive characteristics and labeling her a sociopath. However, though these labels may at times be accurate, research indicates that bullies do not thrive in a vacuum, and their rein is most likely an outgrowth of a toxic culture. This is actually good news because cultures are far easier to fix than people (Lutgen-Sandvik & McDermott, 2011).

Cultures that foster bad behavior tend to have specific characteristics in common. They lack competent leadership, are rooted in the micro-politics of competition and rivalry, and are void of accountability for incivility and unethical actions (Zapf, Hoel, & Vartia, 2003). These are places where nondisclosure agreements are used to hide abuse and conversations about critical issues are discouraged and silenced.

Solutions That Turn Bystanders Into Upstanders

There is hope and a path forward for turning bystanders into upstanders. First, there must be a concerted effort to hire and promote leaders with high ethical standards, deep compassion, and the courage to speak out against injustices. Next, organizations must engage in clear and honest conversations about what constitutes workplace bullying and how to recognize the signs of abuse. Then, safe and confidential reporting systems must be established where bystanders can call out bad behavior without fear of retaliation or rebuke. Lastly, a culture of psychological safety must be fostered, where divergent thought is encouraged, honest conversations are expected, and an environment of creativity and empathy is created (Schindeler, Ransley, Reynald, 2016).

Workplace bullying cannot thrive inside institutions where employees who witness abuse stand beside the victim and boldly proclaim, “This behavior will not be tolerated here.” When bystanders become upstanders, the power of bullies and toxic cultures dissipates into the wind as ethical and courageous employees step forward to lead their organizations into a brighter and more compassionate future.


Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2007). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York: Collins Business.

Li, X., McAllister, D. J., Ilies, R., & Gloor, J. L. (2019). Schadenfreude: A counter-normative observer response to workplace mistreatment. Academy of Management Review 44(2): 360–376.

Lutgen-Sandvik, P., & McDermott, V. (2011). Making sense of supervisory bullying: Perceived powerlessness, empowered possibilities. Southern Communication Journal, 76(4), 342–368.

Ng, K., Niven, K., & Hoel, H. (2020). ‘I could help, but . . .’: a dynamic sensemaking model of workplace bullying bystanders. Human Relations, 73(12), 1718–1746.

Ng, K., Niven, K., & Notelaers, G. (2021). Does bystander behavior make a difference? How passive and active bystanders in the group moderate the effects of bullying exposure. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advance online publication.

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Schindeler, E., Ransley, J., & Reynald, D. M. (2016). Psychological violence in the workplace. Routledge.

Sonenshein, S. (2007) The role of construction, intuition, and justification in responding to ethical issues at work: The sensemaking-intuition model. Academy of Management Review, 32(4), 1022–1040.

Wortley, R. (2015). Whistleblowers as capable guardians: The decision to report Wrong- doing as a (boundedly) rational choice. In M.A. Andresen & G. Farrell (Eds.), The criminal act: The role and influence of routine activity theory. (pp.196–213). Basing- Stoke, Hampshire: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Zapf, D., Hoel, H. & Vartia, M. (2003). Empirical findings on bullying in the workplace. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf & C.L. Cooper (Eds.) Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice. London: Taylor & Francis. 103–126.