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The Role of Bystanders in Workplace Bullying: An Overview of Theories and Empirical Research

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This chapter gives a contemporary overview of extant international research focusing on issues related to bystanders in workplace bullying. First, the chapter introduces concepts and typologies of bystanders as found in the literature, after which follows a presentation of the early and later studies on bystanders and bystander behaviour. While the early studies mainly focused on the prevalence of observing bullying, later studies explored typologies of bystanders, consequences of being a bystander as well as the antecedents of bystander behaviour. As such, there has been a paradigmatic shift within the field of workplace bullying with bystanders now being seen as part of the problem and therefore as a possible part of the solution. The small but expanding body of bystander research has employed a surprisingly wide range of complementary methodologies which shows promising and consistent findings and enhances the robustness of the research. The chapter also elaborates on possible interventions and on a model of intervention building from theory and empirical findings. Finally, the chapter concludes with practical implications and future research

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... A large proportion of employees witness colleagues being bullied, with frequencies ranging from 35% to 80% (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006;Ortega et al., 2009). This has prompted a number of researchers to suggest the merits of bystander action in tackling bullying Lansbury, 2014;Pouwelse et al., 2018). Consideration of the bystander as a key element of the bullying episode and a possible vehicle for intervention remains an important area of investigation. ...
... This limits the bystander role to simply a proximal witness of events. Lansbury (2014) has suggested that any person present should be classed as a bystander, prompting more recent research to adopt a broader, inclusive understanding of what constitutes a bystander (Pouwelse et al., 2018). However, bystanders can become involved in acts of mistreatment in other ways, often via indirect and vicarious experiencing of the event (Skarlicki & Kulik, 2004). ...
... Previous study findings reinforce the need for an in-depth understanding of the experiences of bystanders of bullying (D'Cruz & Noronha, 2011;van Heugten, 2010;van Heugten, 2011). However, there remains a lack of qualitative studies that provide contextualised accounts of actual experiences, and in particular, research findings that demonstrate which bystander support is of most use for targets (Pouwelse et al., 2018). This has prompted van Heugten (2010) to suggest that "to achieve higher levels of social support and lower the threshold of tolerance for incivility, understanding of the bystander phenomenon as it relates to workplace bullying requires further attention" (p. ...
Article
Bystander action has been proposed as a promising intervention to tackle workplace bullying, however there is a lack of in-depth qualitative research on the direct experiences of bystanders. In this paper, we developed a more comprehensive definition of bullying bystanders, and examined first person accounts from healthcare professionals who had been bystanders to workplace bullying. These perspectives highlighted factors that influence the type and the extent of support bystanders may offer to targets. Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with 43 healthcare professionals who were working in the UK, of which 24 had directly witnessed bullying. The data were transcribed and analysed using Thematic Analysis. The analysis identified four themes that describe factors that influence the type and extent of support bystanders offer to targets of bullying: (a) the negative impact of witnessing bullying on bystanders, (b) perceptions of target responsibility, (c) fear of repercussions, and (d) bystander awareness. Our findings illustrate that, within the healthcare setting, bystanders face multiple barriers to offering support to targets and these factors need to be considered in the wider context of implementing bystander interventions in healthcare settings.
... The term bystander is used to describe not only an actor who is a passive witness or observer, but also an individual who has the potential to intervene in the bullying situation (Ng et al., 2020). Bystanders are by far the largest group exposed to bullying situations, with studies reporting that more than 80% of employees have witnessed workplace bullying (Pouwelse et al., 2021). This finding has prompted several researchers to highlight the importance of bystander action in tackling bullying (Pouwelse et al., 2021). ...
... Bystanders are by far the largest group exposed to bullying situations, with studies reporting that more than 80% of employees have witnessed workplace bullying (Pouwelse et al., 2021). This finding has prompted several researchers to highlight the importance of bystander action in tackling bullying (Pouwelse et al., 2021). Based on a typology developed by Paull et al. (2012), bystander behaviors can be categorized based on whether they are active or passive, and constructive or destructive, as follows: active constructive (e.g., defending the target), passive constructive (e.g., empathizing with the target), active destructive (e.g., collaborating with the perpetrator), or passive destructive (e.g., ignoring or avoiding the situation). ...
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Workplace bullying is a severe problem that affects individuals, organizations, and society. Although there is a growing research interest in bystanders of workplace bullying, the rationale underlying bystanders' behavior in healthcare settings requires further investigation. The aim of the current study is to explore factors that influence the behavior of bystanders to workplace bullying in the healthcare sector. Qualitative semistructured interviews were conducted with 32 staff members in the healthcare sector in Sweden. Data were collected between March 2019 and September 2020 and were analyzed with thematic analysis. The participants experienced that bystanders of bullying, both colleagues and managers, were in many situations acting in a passive way. Organizational factors such as dysfunctional organizational culture and deficiencies in management affected how actively the bystanders could intervene. Additionally, a fear of negative consequences, lack of awareness of what was going on, bullying behavior being excused, and the bystander not being a member of the dominant group were social factors contributing to bystanders' passive behavior. For bystander intervention to be successful, the organization must consider bullying as a serious issue, take action, and show support for both the target and the bystander.
... situations (Pouwelse et al., 2018). Although some bystanders may be aware of bullying, they remain passive and unsupportive (Paull et al., 2012), while others switch their position according to situational factors (e.g., supporting the target vs. joining the bullying; Pouwelse et al., 2018). ...
... situations (Pouwelse et al., 2018). Although some bystanders may be aware of bullying, they remain passive and unsupportive (Paull et al., 2012), while others switch their position according to situational factors (e.g., supporting the target vs. joining the bullying; Pouwelse et al., 2018). Simultaneously, witnessing bullying has been shown to be a distressing experience. ...
Article
This study investigated the experiences of workplace bullying among primary and postprimary school staff in Ireland. A sample of 630 teachers and members of the Senior Management Team (SMT) completed an online survey inquiring about their own experiences of bullying in the workplace, as targets, bystanders, and perpetrators. Information about respondents' perspective taking, empathic concern, personal distress, and demographic background was also collected. Results of the ordinal regression analysis showed a negative association of perspective taking with victimisation and bystander behaviour. In addition, respondents belonging to an SMT reported experiencing victimisation more frequently than teachers, while victimisation experiences and witnessing bullying were more common in postprimary than primary schools. Findings are discussed in terms of the importance of providing awareness and training programmes to school staff.
... Consequently, researchers have acknowledged the importance of observer actions and consider observer interventions to be a promising avenue for mitigating or preventing aggression (e.g. Pouwelse et al., 2018). ...
... While these typologies are useful for furthering our understanding of different behaviors observers of aggression display, Pouwelse et al. (2018) called for the inclusion of dynamic observer roles as well, which account for individuals who switch positions from supporting the target to aiding the perpetrator (Bloch, 2012;Tye-Williams & Krone, 2015). According to them, the fact that this group of individuals is both largely prevalent and undecided in their blame attribution (Bloch, 2012), may make them particularly interesting with regard to implementation of observer interventions. ...
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Observers, bystanders, third-parties, or witnesses can greatly impact the course of workplace aggression, including phenomena such as incivility, bullying, sexual harassments, discriminations and abusive supervision. In this chapter, we examine the current literature on the role of observers in the context of workplace aggression. We provide an overview of: (a) different typologies of observer roles (‘What can they do?’), (b) the empirical evidence regarding observers’ actual behavior (‘What do they do?’), and (c) situational and personal constraints to observer interventions (‘When do they do it?’).We conclude by exploring some future avenues for the further development of this promising research area and discussing practical implications of observer research on individuals confronted with aggression
... Although our study found that age is associated with both vigilance towards possible signs of depression and knowledge on how to intervene with depressed peers, there was no significant association between age and readiness to accept responsibility to help peers with depressive symptoms. This lack of association can be explained with the Attribution-Emotional Model of Stigmatization [27,28]. The model suggests that the more people perceive an individual as having control and responsibility over an negative situation, the less sympathetic they feel toward the individual, which reduces prosocial behavior [27]. ...
... This lack of association can be explained with the Attribution-Emotional Model of Stigmatization [27,28]. The model suggests that the more people perceive an individual as having control and responsibility over an negative situation, the less sympathetic they feel toward the individual, which reduces prosocial behavior [27]. A local population-based study on causal beliefs of mental illness found that 89.1% of the participants had attributed personality issues (i.e., being a nervous person or having a weak character) as a cause of depression [29]. ...
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Background Despite peer involvement having a positive impact on help-seeking behavior, there is a lack of a scale quantifying the possibility of an individual intervening upon noticing peers who show signs of depression. The aims of this study were to (1) develop a bystander intervention scale for depression that assesses the likelihood of university students intervening when a peer shows signs of depression based on the theory of bystander intervention, (2) identify the underlying factors contributing to the behavior, and (3) explore the socio-demographic correlates of the scale. Methods The proposed scale, the Bystander Intervention Scale for Depression (BISD), is a 17-item self-reported questionnaire that was developed based on existing bystander intervention theory and inputs from mental health experts. Data was collected as part of a larger study to evaluate the effectiveness of an anti-stigma intervention amongst university students from a local university. A total of 392 participants were recruited. Exploratory factor analyses were performed to identify the underlying factor structure. Multiple linear regressions were conducted to explore the socio-demographic correlates of the scale. Result Four key factors were identified for the proposed scale: (1) Awareness of depression among peers ; (2) Vigilance towards possible symptoms of depression ; (3) Knowledge on how to intervene ; (4) Acceptance of responsibility to intervene . Having experience in the mental health field was associated with all factors while having family members or friends with mental illness was associated with all factors except for knowledge on how to intervene. Students of older age were associated with higher vigilance towards possible symptoms of depression and knowledge on how to intervene. Those of non-Chinese ethnicity were associated with acceptance of responsibility to intervene . Conclusion This study provides a preliminary tool to assess bystander intervention in depression amongst university students. This study identifies sub-groups of the student population that require more education to intervene with depressed peers and also informs the development of future strategies.
... When evaluating interventions, it is therefore important also to evaluate mediating proximal effects that are theoretically linked to targeted distal outcomes, that is, factors that hinder or facilitate the main outcome of the intervention (Nielsen and Abildgaard, 2013). In the case of workplace harassment and bullying, bystander behavior and bystander intervention has been proposed as a specifically important proximal variable with regard to the further development of workplace bullying (D'Cruz and Noronha, 2011;Pouwelse et al., 2018;Ng et al., 2019). Addressing the role of bystanders may therefore be beneficial when crafting an effective intervention. ...
... The workplace intervention, called "Grip inn" ("Intervene!"), is based on existing literature and empirical research on bystander behavior (e.g., Paull et al., 2012;Pouwelse et al., 2018;Ng et al., 2019). The main theoretical assumption behind the intervention is that the actions of bystanders in situations where coworkers are exposed to acts of bullying and harassment can either escalate or reduce workplace harassment and bullying. ...
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Background: Workplace bullying is an important and prevalent risk factors for health impairment, reduced workability and lowered efficiency among both targets and observers. Development and tests of effective organizational intervention strategies are therefore highly important. The present study describes the background, design, and protocol of a cluster randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of an organization-wide intervention on preventing workplace bullying with a focus on promoting active and constructive bystander behavior. The main overarching goal is to develop an easy to use and standardized organizational intervention based on theory and research in the role of bystanders in bullying situations with the potential of reducing the prevalence of workplace bullying. The theoretical framework of the study is theory of planned behavior (TPB; Ajzen, 1991). Methods/Design: Using a full randomized control trial (RCT) design, this project will empirically test the outcomes of an intervention program targeting bullying and harassment as the main distal outcomes and perceived behavioral control and helping behavior among bystanders as the main proximal outcome. A 1-year cluster randomized controlled design will be utilized, in which controls will also receive the intervention. About 1,500 workers from two different locations of a Norwegian industrial company will be randomized into one intervention group and two control groups with at least 400 workers in each group. A survey will be conducted electronically. With a total of three assessments over 10–12 months, the time interval between the measurement times will be 4 months. Thus, the data collection will take place at baseline, completion of the intervention and at 4 months follow-up. Discussion: This study primarily aims to develop, implement, and evaluate an intervention based on the abovementioned features with the ultimate aim of reducing the prevalence of workplace bullying, by awareness raising and training of bystanders. Manager involvement and involvement of the union representative and the elected health and safety representatives is an important feature of the program. Results of the intervention study will provide important information regarding the effectiveness of preventive interventions against workplace bullying when focusing on bystanders, particularly so regarding the role of bystander awareness, bystander self-efficacy, and bystander behavioral control on the one hand and the prevalence of bullying and harassment on the other.
... First of all, Pouwelse et al. (2018) stated in their study that there are three main actors involved in workplace bullying as the bystander, somebody that witnesses the bullying and interacts with the other actors in various ways. It's clear that there are usually more bystanders in the real bullying incidents than bullies and targets. ...
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This study focuses on to outline the bystander behavior and its effects including bystander decisions, actions and outcomes within the concept of workplace bullying and to describe the correlation between them and its main outcomes in organizations. There is a phenomenon called the bystander effect in social psychology and it is mainly deal with the individuals who are less likely to offer help to a victim when another individual is present and watching the scene. The question is to explain the behavior of employees who watch workplace bullying but fail to intervene, often don’t ignore, or even sometimes join the perpetrator. It can be assumed that bystanders witnessing bullying will restore justice; it has been underlined in previous studies that they might also behave in ways that continue or worsen its progression. So, it can be argued that there is a threesome influence between bystanders, victims, and the perpetrator of the bullying in the organizations. In sum, the goal of this conceptual study is to focus on the connection with the workplace bullying and the bystander effect in organizations and to outline the reasons of the employees who choose to be remaining silent and pretend not to see or hear and prefer not to do anything instead of acting against bullying. Then, in conclusion section, the recommendations will be made to decrease the negative consequences of the workplace bullying and bystander effects in organizations.
... Additional research is also needed to better understand the effects of observer perspective-taking on observers' own outcomes, including their well-being (Pouwelse et al., 2018). Understanding the full range of consequences of observer reactions will be important to ensure that managers promote those reactions that are most effective. ...
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Workplace mistreatment regularly occurs in the presence of others (i.e., observers). The reactions of observers toward those involved in the mistreatment episode have wide-reaching implications. In the current set of studies, we draw on theories of perspective-taking to consider how this form of interpersonal sensemaking influences observer reactions toward those involved in a witnessed incident of workplace mistreatment. We find that observers' blame attributions and empathic concern for the individual whose perspective is taken explain the positive effects of perspective-taking on observer attitudes toward and performance evaluations of both the target and instigator of a witnessed incident of mistreatment. We also find that the effect of perspective-taking on observer reactions is stronger when the witnessed mistreatment is more severe. Finally, we find that although observer perspective-taking in the context of mistreatment can be encouraged, the effect seems to benefit instigators' performance evaluations rather than targets'. Implications for targets, instigators, and organizations are discussed.
Chapter
Previous studies on supervisory bullying (or abusive supervision) at work have mainly focused on the perspectives of either the victims or perpetrators. Meanwhile, research on the perspective of bystanders who have observed the bullying behaviours of supervisors towards their co-workers remains limited. To fill this literature gap, the current study examined the reactions of bystanders to supervisory bullying and the role of their attributions and emotions. The results of a field study, which used a sample of 132 employees from various organizations in China, showed that the indirect relationship between witnessing supervisory bullying and supervisor-directed helping behaviour via negative affects towards supervisors was negative and significant only when bystander-attributed injury-initiation motive was high. The results demonstrated the importance of examining the perspectives of bystanders on supervisory bullying.
Chapter
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Framed within theories of fairness and stress, the current paper examines bystanders’ intervention intention to workplace bullying across two studies based on international employee samples (N = 578). Using a vignette-based design, we examined the role of bullying mode (offline vs. online), bullying type (personal vs. work-related) and target closeness (friend vs. work colleague) on bystanders’ behavioural intentions to respond, to sympathise with the victim (defender role), to reinforce the perpetrator (prosecutor role) or to be ambivalent (commuter role). Results illustrated a pattern of the influence of mode and type on bystander intentions. Bystanders were least likely to support the victim and more likely to agree with perpetrator actions for cyberbullying and work-related acts. Tentatively, support emerged for the effect of target closeness on bystander intentions. Although effect sizes were small, when the target was a friend, bystanders tended to be more likely to act and defend the victim and less likely to reinforce the perpetrator. Implications for research and the potential for bystander education are discussed.
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Modern working life is characterized by growing individualization and by increasing demands for flexibility These trends nourish ambiguity about where we stand in relation to others and encourage individualized jockeying for position. In the last decades increased attention has been given to the question of bullying at the workplace (Adams 1992; Keashly 1998; Rainer 1998). So-called ‘negative acts’ constitute a central concept in this research. In the literature negative acts are defined as ‘acts that are unwanted by the target that may be carried out deliberately or unconsciously but clearly cause humiliation, offence and distress’ (Einarsen 2003: 6). Such acts include common sense categories of social behaviour such as being laughed at, screamed at, ignored, threatened with sacking, maliciously teased, repeatedly criticized for one’s work, subjected to excessive surveillance, etc. Individual negative acts as such do not necessarily constitute bullying. However, in quantitative approaches bullying is defined in terms of frequency and duration of exposure to negative acts.1
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Social Motivation, Justice, and the Moral Emotions proposes an attribution theory of interpersonal or social motivation that distinguishes between the role of thinking and feeling in determining action. The place of this theory within the larger fields of motivation and attributional analyses is explored. It features new thoughts concerning social motivation on such topics as help giving, aggression, achievement evaluation, compliance to commit a transgression, as well as new contributions to the understanding of social justice. Included also is material on moral emotions, with discussions of admiration, contempt, envy, gratitude, and other affects not considered in Professor Weiner's prior work. The text also contains previously unexamined topics regarding social inferences of arrogance and modesty. Divided into five chapters, this book: * considers the logical development and structure of a proposed theory of social motivation and justice; * reviews meta-analytic tests of the theory within the contexts of help giving and aggression and examines issues related to cultural and individual differences; * focuses on moral emotions including an analysis of admiration, envy, gratitude, jealousy, scorn, and others; * discusses conditions where reward decreases motivation while punishment augments strivings; and * provides applications that are beneficial in the classroom, in therapy, and in training programs.This book appeals to practicing and research psychologists and advanced students in social, educational, personality, political/legal, health, and clinical psychology. It will also serve as a supplement in courses on motivational psychology, emotion and motivation, altruism and/or pro-social behavior, aggression, social judgment, and morality. Also included is the raw material for 13 experiments relating to core predictions of the proposed attribution theory. © 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
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When will bystanders of workplace mobbing show antisocial or prosocial behaviour toward the victim? Results of a 2 × 2 vignette study (N = 177) suggest that high perceived responsibility of the victim for the onset of the mobbing evokes anger and consequently antisocial bystander behaviour, whereas low perceived responsibility generates sympathy and consequently prosocial bystander behaviour. The results further indicate that bystanders will show more antisocial behaviour and less prosocial behaviour toward the victim when they anticipate stigma by association. The implications of these results for interventions seeking to influence bystanders' behaviour in the context of workplace mobbing and for further research on this bystander behaviour are discussed. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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We investigated bullying behaviour within the context of trade union organizing drives. We conducted an archival search using the Ontario Labour Relations Board database, which yielded 146 cases over a 10-year period. We found that the three core features of workplace bullying were present in 20 of these cases. Through a qualitative content analysis, we found a number of instances in which managers were reported to have repeatedly and persistently engaged in acts of bullying towards union organizers and supporters, intensified the hostility of these acts over time, and exploited their power through threats to job security and captive audience meetings. We also shed light on the role of observers of bullying behaviour and how observers may have distanced themselves from or concealed contact with the target.Practitioner pointsManagers in organizations may resort to bullying behaviour during the organizing drive, which can produce fear among employees and result in significant legal consequences.Bullying tends to start with subtle and indirect behaviours, but often escalates into more intense forms of bullying.Senior management should ensure that managers and other employees in the organization understand the potential repercussions of their bullying behaviours.
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We present a theory of why some people who witness or learn about acts of mistreatment against others in organizations are more likely to recognize this injustice and become personally involved. Drawing from theories of moral identity, moral intuitions, and self-regulation, we explain third parties' morally motivated responses to mistreatment and consider the role of power and belief in the disciplinary system in this process. We discuss implications of the theory and propose future research directions.