Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer

Silent witnesses to bullying

Why is it that employees who witness bullying in the workplace are often reluctant to intervene? And what role could they actually play in helping to improve the wider culture of a business?

These are among the key questions that a team of academics from Alliance MBS are investigating as part of a project into the role that third parties play in workplace bullying.

Dr Karen Niven, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, has been working on this topic with Helge Hoel, Professor in Organisational Behaviour, and their PhD student Kara Ng. Dr Niven recently presented a keynote at an event on workplace bullying, organised by the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment, explaining that when workers witness bullying they tend to become “morally disengaged”.

As she explains: “What tends to happen is that people know that they should intervene but invariably choose not to. Although fear of speaking out or interfering plays a big role in this decision, there could be a host of other reasons too.”

Dr Niven added that, until now, most research in this area has concentrated on the bully and the person being bullied. “We don’t tend to think about the role that these witnesses play. By focusing on third parties we are taking a different perspective which could create different avenues for interventions.”



She added that despite a host of workplace interventions bullying was, sadly, still rife in the workplace. “People have been trying for years and years to introduce a range of workplace interventions, but on the whole they have not worked. There is a need to look more widely at why bullying is happening and what can be done to stop it.”

Dr Niven said bullying was never a one-off event. “It doesn’t just happen on one day, it happens over a long period of time. There is invariably a power element to it and it comes back to the hold that a particular individual often has over an organisation or a particular team.

“It is also linked to the ethical infrastructure of an organisation and what is accepted within it. There is a need for further research on how we can stop this happening and the role that training could play. If third parties have the correct training then maybe they would act differently in such scenarios.”

She added that bullying can also be more likely to occur in specific sectors such as a high-pressured sales environment where staff have short-term targets to meet. “These are the sorts of places where bullying can thrive.”


Actions not words

Dr Niven said that an organisation can have as many posters and policy documents it likes, but what really matters is what is communicated through actions on the ground. “How managers actually behave is what matters. You have to have a culture where staff will buy-in to these procedures.”

Another way of helping to prevent bullying was for leaders to appoint the right people within an organisation in the first place. “When a boss is asking for references for a particular person why don’t they actually ask staff what it was like working for that individual, rather than their former boss?”


Making a difference

This is Dr Niven’s latest piece of work into psychology within the workplace. For instance, a previous paper she wrote investigated whether listening to songs made customers act less aggressively towards call centre workers.

It is one of a number of papers that features in the recently published book Making a difference with psychology which has she has edited and which looks at how psychology can make a positive difference to society.

The book, which is free to download, brings together a number of papers funded by the Richard Benjamin Trust which supports innovative research in social and occupational/organisational psychology. It looks at how psychology can make a difference to communities, how it can have an impact in the health and healthcare environment, and how it can have an impact in the workplace.