Are you a bystander to bullying?

Workplace bullying is often not just about those directly involved, but about those who are looking on, too, finds Grainne Hallahan
22nd September 2021, 3:00pm
Grainne Hallahan


Are you a bystander to bullying?
Teacher Cyber Bullying

Bullying is never acceptable in any workplace, but would you know what to do if you saw it happening? Do you always step in when you could, or should?

We asked Hannah Boydell, head of HR at Rendcomb College in the Cotswolds, to explain the impact that bystanders can have to bullying incidents among staff in schools. 

Tes: What is the "bystander effect"?

HB: It's a psychological theory that states that individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are around. For example, when a person is being bullied, the chances of someone intervening to stop that bullying deplete if there are more witnesses to the incident. 

This might explain why sometimes bullying happens despite there being witnesses. And because it goes unchallenged, the bully has learned that their words or behaviour won't be challenged.

WATCH: Grainne Hallahan and Hannah Boydell discuss teaching and workplace bullying


What can you do to stop the bystander effect?

HB: Although you might not feel that you can speak up, you can start by making eye contact and remaining present. This should go some way to reassuring them that they are safe.

If you feel you can, you could ask them if they would like to leave, and depending on the situation you could tell the bully that their behaviour isn't OK. Always record anything that you saw and heard.

What should I do next if I have seen someone exhibiting bullying behaviour towards a colleague?

HB: Speak out. Be an ally. And it doesn't matter where you see it (in your own department or otherwise). Make a note of what you saw (record it factually, date, time, location, any other witnesses) and possibly talk to the person being bullied.

Remember that the person subjected to the bullying may be feeling very sore and sensitive, possibly embarrassed, so be prepared for them to deny it. I would also suggest mentioning it to a member of the pastoral team - they will want to know, and it will mean that they are better able to support.

What should a person do if the bullying behaviour is more subtle? For example, the person being bullied is friends with the bully, but they are clearly making them feel upset.

HB: This is a really difficult situation to find yourself in. If you feel up to it, raise it with the target of the bullying to check in with how they feel.

If the person has been "gaslighted" - as in, they have been lied to and made to feel as if they had imagined conversations or the way an event unfolded - it might be helpful for this person to talk to another colleague to check their take on it. 

Try to reassure the person to trust their instincts - if the behaviour of someone at work is causing them to be upset then the behaviour needs to be addressed.

Someone is putting off reporting bullying behaviour in the hope the other person will tire and stop themselves. What should they do?

HB: Don't! It probably won't go away and the longer you leave it, the worse it could get. Also, it could be a misunderstanding that could be talked through and resolved very quickly. But it might be a pattern of behaviour that is being carried on to other people as well. 

Remember, you don't have to confront the person. You could talk to a colleague to share your experience - that doesn't have to be a teacher, it could be someone in human resources or a member of the support team in the school.

What matters most is that you don't leave it to fester - this sort of thing can eat you up mentally and get worse if not dealt with.

What can you do if people are dismissive of bullying behaviour?

HB: We wouldn't expect that behaviour of our pupils so why on earth would we accept that behaviour of our staff? Bullying is intentional behaviour and shouldn't be accepted in the workplace.

The hope is that we are the model for our pupils. Reputationally, it can be really damaging if a school is known for not acting on and dealing with this behaviour.

How do you know if what has been seen or experienced is bullying or normal workplace behaviour?

HB: It's sometimes very hard to be sure. We use this definition: "Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. Power does not always mean being in a position of authority, but can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation."

Bullying can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. Bullying may include, by way of example:

• physical or psychological threats;

• overbearing and intimidating levels of supervision; or

• inappropriate derogatory remarks about someone's performance.

However, it is important to note that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker's performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given to workers in the course of their employment, will not amount to bullying on their own.

For more advice on workplace bullying, you can contact your union and the National Bullying Helpline.

This piece was originally published on 5 December 2020. 

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