Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Bystanders Leadership

Categories of Bystanders and Witnesses

sign that says right, wrong or it depends
Original Publication Date: April 5, 2015; Edited and Republished on September 25, 2019

Workplace bullying is an issue which touches everyone in the workplace and in an organization. Even though a person may not be the direct target of the aggression, witnesses are still impacted by what is happening. Bystanders and witnesses to workplace bullying tend to fall into different categories in order to cope with their workplace.

Witnesses can be peripherally involved with the aggression. Bystanders in these categories know what is happening in their workplace and most often take the roles as the witness. For the most part, they see what is happening to the target and they witness the bullying. Occasionally, these bystanders participate in the aggression. However, this is a random and does not occur frequently. It is often a fear response to the aggressor and a way in which the witness shows they know who has the power in the workplace. Witnesses may listen to the target and acknowledge that they know what is happening. However, refuse to get involved or support the target publicly.

Witnesses can also be active participants in the aggression. Witnesses in this category often support the lead of the aggressor. They typically do not initiate aggression against the target on their own but will go along with the aggression when they feel that they have too and when they deem it beneficial for them. For example, a witness in this category, may verbally assault a target in a meeting where the aggressor is present, but would not verbally assault the target under other circumstances. They try to stay out of the aggression as much as they possibly can. These witnesses do not engage with the target but will with the aggressor because this advantages them. These witnesses try to make sure that the bully knows they are loyal to them and that they are willing to do the bully’s bidding when needed.

Another category of bystanders are the observers. Witnesses can also merely be observers to the aggression that is happening in the workplace. These witnesses do not partake in the aggression but do nothing to stop the aggression. Witnesses watch what is happening and take no action for either the target or the aggressor.

'There are witnesses who do not engage in the aggression, stand up for the target, and will speak out against the aggressor. However, this is a rare category for a witness to be in because speaking up against the aggressor puts a mark on the witness. They put themselves at risk for being in the line of fire of the aggressor. They could be the next target of persistent workplace aggression. No witness wants this to happen.

For the witness, each category is an attempt to deal with what is happening and to maintain their own status in their workplace. No matter which category a witness falls in, the choices they make directly influence the aggressor, the target, and the overall functioning of the workplace.