The Witness: 6 Steps to Take if You See Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying affects everyone. Here's what to do.

Posted Aug 13, 2014

Schoolyards and social media aren’t the only places we find bullying in the U.S. We also find it in workplaces in every city, causing serious damage to the targets of such behavior. Research shows that being the target of bullying at work is more stressful and devastating than all other workplace stressors and job demands combined [1, 2], so it’s not surprising that those who are mistreated at work often want to quit or do [3].

For every employee who is bullied, there are typically many others who witness the mistreatment, but who are not targets themselves. Witnessing this type of attack on a fellow co-worker can be traumatic, especially if the witness feels powerless to stop the harassment. When we witness mistreatment in our workplace, we may feel compelled to stand up to the bully in an effort to stop the wrongs that are being committed. On the other hand, we may also be prone to silence if the perpetrator is a manager or if we do not wish to have the negative behavior re-directed at us. Some people may even decide to side with the bully out of fear, or in an effort to gain their favor. Regardless of how we respond to the display of bullying, one thing is certain—we are all negatively impacted by its presence.

Most of the research has focused on the impact that bullying has on the targets because they bear the brunt of the attack. We rarely consider the damaging effect bullying has on those who observe it, but obviously it isn’t only targets that are harmed. Recent research in the journal of Human Relations found that merely witnessing bullying in the workplace has tremendous implications for commitment to the organization. In fact, those who witnessed bullying in their workplace were more likely to want to resign, even though they themselves were not the target.

This is a surprising finding in some ways. It isn’t hard to understand why the target of bullying would want to quit, but the non-target witness is presumably “safe.” So why would witnesses report an increased desire to find a position elsewhere?

Take a moment to put yourself inside the head of someone who is witnessing the bullying of a co-worker, or recall an actual situation you may have encountered from your past. Imagine going about your workday when you observe someone—once again—falsely accusing another of poor performance, or glaring at them with hostility, or discounting their exemplary work, or even yelling or screaming in an attempt to humiliate them. (You can find a full list of common bullying tactics here.)

You instinctively and immediately know this isn’t right, and the behavior should be stopped. But if your manager does nothing and the behavior is allowed to continue, you may begin to think the organization is morally bankrupt. After all, what kind of company or institution would allow one employee to bully another? We may consciously or subconsciously realize that if bullying is commonplace, we too could become the target of such malicious behavior—maybe next week, maybe next year. And if so, contemplating our own resignation could be a logical course of action, and perhaps, a good way to lodge our protest.

Research shows that one in five of us will witness workplace bullying [4]. If we hope to eliminate the harmful behavior and restore justice, there are steps we can take that may be better course of action than quitting. Consider one or all of the following actions:

1. Write down the details of the mistreatment soon after you witness it.

Don’t wait until you see a large number of infractions before recording your observations. It will be harder to recall all the specific incidents if you wait for a long-standing pattern.

2. Keep emails that include evidence of bullying.

When you are copied on a mean-spirited email—or “nasty gram” as my husband calls it—it may be tempting to immediately delete it. Instead, create an email folder for such correspondence and save the “nasty gram” to that folder. You never know when you, or the target, may need such evidence. 

3. Reach out to the target privately.

Even if you don’t know the target well, stopping by their office and giving them your vote of confidence means a lot. Give them positive feedback where it’s due and let them know you are there to support them if and when they need it. It may just be the kind of support they need to confront the bully, or to take steps to stop their behavior.     

4. Support the target in group settings.

You may not want to challenge a bully for fear he or she will turn on you, but there are subtle ways to support the target when you feel they are being unjustly criticized or attacked. You can always lend your support by saying, “I for one support the work Tom has done,” or “I believe Jana is on the right path here.” And then give your reasons why.

5. Share what you know with HR when you see a pattern of bullying.

Targets of bullying are often afraid to speak up, and when they do, their complaints may be disregarded by a manager. As an independent third-party, you may be in a better position to provide an objective account of the negative behavior. If a manager disregards the bullying activity, it may be time to go to HR.

6. Take care of yourself.

It can be easy to discount the impact of a toxic work environment if you are not the target of hostility, but even witnessing bullying can impact your wellbeing. Don't forget about your own self-care needs, which may include exercise, healthy food, and positive relationships with people outside the workplace.

Many of us have, or will, witness bullying at our place of employment. We can choose to ignore it, condone it, or run away from it. As a matter of practice and human decency, we should do what we can to eliminate it. At its core, bullying is an ongoing attempt by one person to abuse or humiliate another person in an effort to boost the perpetrator’s power or control. It ultimately hurts everyone—the target, the perpetrator, the organization, and those who witness it. Know you can take steps and make a difference.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of COMMIT TO WIN (2014, Hudson Street Press/Penguin), available at and wherever books are sold.

She can be found on TwitterFacebook, and at


[1] Adams, A. (1992). Bullying at work: How to confront and overcome it. London: Virago Press

[2] Wilson, C. B. (1991). U.S. businesses suffer from workplace trauma. Personnel Journal, 70(7), 47-50.

[3] Houshmand, M., O’Reilly, J., Robinson, S., & Wolff, A. (2012). Escaping bullying: The simultaneous impact of individual and unit-level bullying on turnover intentions. Human Relations, 65(7), 901-918.

[4] 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey

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