Are the bystanders as bad as the bullies?

When workplace harassment and bullying occurs, is there any such thing as an ‘innocent bystander’? Taking action against bullying behaviour in the workplace can hinge on a witness’s decision to come forward and report the inappropriate behaviour. However, if a bystander chooses to remain quiet, this can lead to further problems for victims of bullying and the bystander.


It is widely known that victims of workplace bullying experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress syndrome. However, less commonly known is the effect of bullying on the observers. Witnessing workplace harassment or bullying and staying quiet about it can have several effects; the bystander could become another victim, could be adversely affected without being directly targeted, could potentially adopt similar bullying behaviour or may choose to disengage from their team or leave the organisation.

A recent study from the University of Helsinki has revealed that the mental health of bystanders can be impacted in a similar way to that of bullying victims. The research found those who witnessed workplace bullying were more likely to take antidepressants, sleeping pills, sedatives and other psychotropic medications. Additionally, a person who observes workplace bullying and chooses to do nothing can often end up adopting similar attitudes and conduct.

“If it is seen that bullying-type behaviour is allowed in a workplace – particularly if it is successful in achieving whatever the bully’s ends are – then many people respond by believing that is the way this company or organisation works so they will adopt a similar approach,” Kate Carnell, CEO of depression support organisation beyondblue, told Human Capital Magazine on 7 February.


Identifying and addressing these situations is an important step in creating a positive workplace culture. It is therefore crucial to ensure the reporting process is outlined during workplace bullying and harassment training and it is stressed that workers who observe inappropriate behaviour have the right to report it.

Employers also need to consider coaching and encouragement for staff members to take action when they witness adverse behaviour as part of their role in upholding organisational values and promoting a supportive culture. Creating an honest and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable speaking with supervisors and managers about behaviour begins with senior staff role modelling appropriate behaviour and taking action when inappropriate behaviour is observed or reported to them.