Live Chat
Skip to main content

How To Address The Bullying Bystander Effect At Work

Image of a group showing hands stacked on top of each others in the centre of circle

As leaders, we’d like to think we left bullying behind in our childhood playground. Yet the truth is not so reassuring; a recent workplace survey shows that almost one in three employees experience bullying.

What’s worse is when we fail to intervene or bully employees ourselves. This enables disrespect and abuse, creating a toxic work environment. You can play a meaningful role in shaping workplace culture by addressing bullying and setting an example for your team to step up and step in.


Bullying includes comments or acts that hurt an employee by causing isolation, psychological distress, or physical pain. At Respect Group Inc., we see bullying happen across all industries. We collaborate with our clients daily to address workplace bullying and harassment behaviours, like teasing and humiliating co-workers.

Our experience lines up with national trends that show:

  • Women experience bullying more than men

  • Employees aged 15 to 24 are bullied more than older employees

  • Bullying, harassment, and violence are most prevalent in health occupations 

  • People with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community are often targeted

With the rise of remote work since the pandemic, cyberbullying is a growing issue. Bullies can hide behind their devices and typically don’t notice the impact of their words or actions on their target. 


Whether bullying happens in person or online, there are often witnesses present. Bystanders can be passive witnesses who don’t intervene or active witnesses who support the targeted person by defending them or addressing the bullying. 

The bystander effect suggests that in a situation like bullying, having other people around reduces a person’s willingness to help. Research shows that when witnessing bullying, the most common bystander reaction is to discuss the incident with colleagues. Both employees and fellow leaders tend to act passively.


It’s essential to address bullying to avoid its negative impacts. Bullying is the most common mental health risk factor at work and is associated with low work engagement. The bystander effect can create more stress for the target, who now needs to understand why others didn’t respond. 

Bullying can even impair mental health in witnesses when they have low levels of optimism and leadership support.

For your organization, workplace bullying is associated with costs such as employee absenteeism, turnover, and loss of productivity. There are also legal risks, as the Ontario Human Rights Code and Occupational Health and Safety Act require employers to provide a work environment free from harassment.


Organizational and social factors prevent employees from stepping up and stepping in against bullying. Having a dysfunctional work culture or unsupportive management limits bystanders from intervening.

For example, we’ve seen organizations where employees are punished or ignored when they point out issues about their workplace. This breaks down trust and can stop the target and witnesses from reporting bullying. 

Bystanders may avoid intervening for social reasons, like being afraid of negative consequences, not being part of the dominant social group, and seeing the bullying behaviour excused by others, including management. They may also depend on the bully in some capacity at work.


You can set the tone for your employees to become active witnesses—what we call being an Upstander rather than a bystander.

Foster social support

Social support increases employees’ job satisfaction and protects them against bullying and sexual harassment. Take time to build relationships with your team and create opportunities for employees to get to know each other. This can be through formal groups, such as an employee resource group, or informal get-togethers that include everyone.

Educate about bullying

Share information with your team about how to recognize and report bullying. Be familiar with your organization’s harassment policy so you can answer questions and help employees follow the policy.

Be an Upstander

Speak up against bullying to show you don’t tolerate the behaviour. If you witness an incident of bullying, step in and ask the bully to stop. Show the target person your support and sympathy.

When someone reports an incident to you, take the appropriate steps to address the behaviour, which may involve HR support. Inform employees who were involved, including bystanders, what action was taken. This makes it clear that the bullying wasn’t ignored and won’t be accepted.

Act quickly

Don’t delay a response. Promptly address the behaviour and work out a solution before the problem gets out of hand. 

Endorse your workplace harassment prevention program

Work with other leaders and employees to maintain your workplace harassment prevention program. The program must be formalized in writing and include the procedures for reporting, investigating, and dealing with incidents of bullying or harassment. 


You don’t need to step in against bullying alone. There are several resources you and your organization can turn to.

Ontario’s Code of Practice

To help your organization meet the legal requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, consult the provincial government’s Code of Practice to Address Workplace Harassment

MHCC’s National Standard

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has created the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It provides organizations with voluntary guidelines and tools to promote employee mental health and prevent psychological harm.

CAMH’s Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) developed the Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders as a practical resource. Based on evidence and feedback from business leaders, it offers a roadmap to create a mental health strategy at your organization.

Respect Group’s Respect in the Workplace training

Training for leaders and employees creates awareness and ensures the success of your workplace harassment prevention program. At Respect Group, we’ve designed the Respect in the Workplace program to help organizations prevent and address bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination, and help turn bystanders into Upstanders.


There isn’t a one-size-fits-all response to bullying; you should consider the target’s feelings and preferences. But in every case, we want to see that the targeted individual receives some social support and that the incident is appropriately reported and then formally addressed by leadership or HR.

As a leader, you have a lot of power to stop bullying. Help your employees step up and step in to create a safe, enjoyable work environment for everyone.

Get to know the author – Sheldon Kennedy