You’ve Witnessed Bullying in the Workplace - Now What?

Catherine Mattice

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WitnessingWorkplaceBullying.pngWhat would you do if you saw a speeding, lifted, diesel, bright orange eight-wheeler truck crash into a little electric car sitting motionless at a red light?

At first glance you’re probably thinking you’d call 911. Of course you would, you’re a decent human being and would want to ensure both drivers are safe. Unfortunately you’d be wrong in your answer.

The actual answer is that you’d call 911 if no one else was around. If other people are around, you likely would NOT call 911 because you’d assume someone else would. Psychologists call this the “bystander effect.” The greater number of people around, the greater the likelihood you will not call 911. So what happens if everyone is standing around assuming someone else is calling 911? I shudder to think.

Workplace bullying is a little like this scenario. At workplaces all over America, and the world, bright orange trucks are smashing into electric cars – that is, abusive people are running over good people. Furthermore, lots of people are standing around and no one is doing anything about it.

Most of my colleagues call those people standing around doing nothing bystanders, or witnesses.  I prefer a different term: re-enforcers. To me, the words bystander and witness sound passive, as if there’s nothing one can do in a bullying situation. But doing nothing is a conscious choice, and doing nothing is reinforcing the behavior. Doing nothing tells the bully the bullying behavior is okay.

If you’re a re-enforcer, you might also be interested to know that there’s a ton of scientific research indicating that people who witness bullying suffer from many of the same health problems targets of bullying suffer from. Witnessing aggression at work every day will stress you out, and not saying anything will make you feel guilty. In turn you will experience sleepless nights, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety and maybe even depression.

So what do you do if you are a re-enforcer?

  1. Tell the target you see what’s happening. One of the reasons workplace bullying takes such a toll on targets is the feeling of being alone. Targets feel isolated and scared, and often feel that the people around them don’t understand what they are going through. So tell them you see the bullying and recognize it is hurtful. Validation is a great gift - targets need to know their feelings of anxiety and fear are okay.                                                                                                                               
  1. With the target’s permission, talk to others about it. Here’s the deal. If a target starts going around asking co-workers for help standing up against the bully, the target could get it even worse from the bully when he or she finds out about it. In addition, this act will no doubt be used against them when HR gets wind of the bullying situation. HR will want to know why the target was going around gossiping about the bully, because that will be HR’s perception. If you’re not being targeted, you have the power to talk to others about the bullying and ask them to help you stand up. 
  1. Stand up for the target in the moment. Next time you’re in a staff meeting, and John rips into Sue like he always does, ask John to stop. You could say something non-confrontational like, “John, would it bother you to know that you’re making everyone in this room uncomfortable?” Or you could go a little more assertive with, “John, please stop yelling. Please calm down.” 

Even better, get everyone in the room to ask John to stop. If everyone in the room stands up to the bully, the social pressure to conform becomes too great. He will stop if he understands that his behavior will not be allowed. Remember that witnesses – re-enforcers – are giving the bully permission to bully by not saying anything at all. Don’t give the bully permission. 

  1. Offer to go to HR with the target. If your attempts to rally the troops and to put a stop to the bullying are going nowhere, then offer to go to HR along with the target. You can certainly go as a support person for the target, but I suggest you go on your own behalf. Tell HR you’re witnessing some unprofessional behavior often enough that it’s bothering you, and that you think something needs to be done. Provide clear and specific facts to HR, including who was bullied, the date, the scenario you witnessed, etc. You could even keep a journal of facts for a few weeks or months, and turn that in.

Whether you stand up to the bully, or complain to HR, there is power in numbers. The more people who stand up to the bully either in the moment or by going to HR, the more likely the bullying will stop.

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Workplace Violence

Catherine Mattice

Posted By: Catherine Mattice

Author Catherine Mattice is partnering with EBI as we launch an assault on workplace bullying. Catherine is the co-author of the book BACK OFF! Your Kick-A$$ Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, a comprehensive guide on dealing with bullying in the workplace. She is a founding member of the National Workplace Coalition and college professor in San Diego, California.

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