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

Between a Rock and Hard Place: The Few Choices for Witnesses

white character with their hand on head of light blue and dark blue characters holding them back
Original Publication Date: August 11, 2016; Edited and Republished on September 25, 2019

When I write these insights and strategies about workplace bullying, I try to, typically, come from an objective perspective. However, this post is of utmost importance and relies on my personal experiences.

Over my career in academics, I have been been a part of workplace bullying cultures and a target. A target is the person that is being victimized in the workplace by the aggressor and a witness is a worker who sees the aggressor harm the target. It is difficult to be targeted, but it is also extremely problematic to witness workplace bullying that happens to co-workers, especially those you have developed a strong collegial relationship with. I sometimes find this more difficult to cope with than being the target myself.

Recently, a colleague experienced a vicious attack by our supervisor. I wish I could say that this was a one-time deal, but my colleague has suffered years of workplace violence and the supervisor is a classic workplace aggressor. My colleague is targeted daily and weekly by our supervisor and I frequently witness the abuse.

The evaluation completed by our supervisor was supposed to be an objective assessment of teaching, scholarship, and service. Part of the evaluation process included a synopsis of the faculty's accomplishments documented by supporting artifacts. (Artifacts are documents that prove what we said we were doing is actually true.) My colleague received their evaluation with comments submitted by the supervisor. The supervisor's comments in the evaluation criticized, condemned, and slandered my colleague because the leader is an aggressor and has been victimizing my colleague for almost a decade.

The bully/supervisor empowered himself by cutting down his colleagues who had more skills than he had. The evaluation contained material that was inaccurate, irrelevant to the evaluation process, taken out of context, and a large majority of the information was out and out lies made up by the supervisor. The artifacts submitted by my colleague contradicted many of the statements the supervisor made. The supervisor attacked my colleague’s professional reputation and was a typical strategy this bully used.

Unfortunately, the evaluation was not an isolated incident. It was merely a single event in a workplace that was filled with aggressive and purposeful acts of hate toward my colleague. It was one piece of the workplace bullying culture that the supervisor created, cultivated, and actively sought to sustain.

The bully in this environment had help with his sustaining the workplace bullying culture. Not only did the supervisor sign the evaluation of my colleague, but so did the supervisor’s boss. This aggression was supported by the leadership at work because they put their signature on the document and they did not take the time to ensure that the comments made by the supervisor were accurate. It was just easier for them to sign on the dotted line and support the disparaging evaluation. The bully was not held accountable nor did the supervisor receive any consequence for bringing their personal bias into an evaluation and most likely they never will. My colleague had had many evaluations like this. This evaluation unfortunately was particularly grueling and contained blatant workplace aggression that clearly and unnecessarily hurt my colleague. It was done on purpose to hurt and abuse the target. And let’s not forget that it was also done to empower the bully.

Evaluations are effective tools that aggressors use to actively harm their targets. The evaluation process was even more harmful to the target in this case because leadership did not intervene, and the workplace aggressor was able to use the evaluation process to push colleagues over the edge towards resignation.
As a bystander of workplace violence, witnesses often feel powerless to find actions that would make the workplace better or that would make a difference to my colleague. Witnesses are often aware that their organization suffers from having a culture of persistent workplace aggression. Leadership often fails to intervene making the workplace bullying culture worse and reinforcing the bad behavior of bullies. Unfortunately, this scenario is another example of leadership sustaining violent cultural standards. Change in workplace bullying cultures will only happen when leadership demands accountable, equitability, and fairness.

Witnesses are often put between a rock and a hard place. No matter what they do, it will not improve the overall culture because there is no accountability or integrity in the environment. In a healthy workplace, witnesses could talk to their supervisor. However, in a on organization that suffers from a workplace bullying culture, going to the supervisor will not make any change and most likely, the persistent workplace aggression will increase against the witness and the target will also be at risk for retaliation. Just like every other aggressor in the workplace, blaming the target for the behavior is standard operating procedure. Without any sense of responsibility or integrity, the aggressor will only continue to persecute those they deem as problems and my colleague is at continued risk for harm.

The only thing witnesses can do is to be supportive to their colleague. Be available for your colleague, listen, and problem solve solutions. However, for many of us who care about our colleagues, this just does not seem like enough. We really want to stop workplace bullying.