Bullying usually involves not just a bully but a target and potentially bystanders. Bystanders play an important role in dissolving or exaggerating workplace bullying. Workplace bullying policies should recognize the role of bystanders as a priority. Awareness about bystanders’ responsibilities and roles should then follow.

Bystanders play an important role because they are at ground zero, can change the situations directly and also act as witnesses. Workplace bullying compliance training in businesses should aim to instil a sense of responsibility for the bystanders and increase their confidence and effectiveness in responding appropriately to bullying.

Importance of workplace compliance training

Raising awareness and adult learning programs are common methods in compliance training. Workplace compliance training in equal employment opportunity and workplace discrimination shows positive effects on preventing workplace bullying. For instance, statistics show that businesses that offered compliance training to managers received fewer lawsuits over managers’ actions. This was because managers were better informed about the consequences of their conduct and therefore behaved in the best way possible. Furthermore, it was noted that employees complained more to the authorities because of the knowledge of their rights.

Organisational culture affects bystanders

According to studies, when managers and leaders are set to appropriate cultural values, it lessens employees from being accustomed to a climate of bullying and developing norms that perpetuate it. This shows the importance of creating a culture of workplace compliance and how effective it is to send a strong message from the top down.

Moving beyond lip-service

Developing policies and providing training on workplace compliance is not sufficient to stop workplace bullying. Organisations and leaders should cultivate caution and responsibility for bystanders who may possess varying degrees of understanding of human relationships and psychological well-being at the workplace. Setting the culture right is of utmost importance. Culture sets the norm of valid behaviour. Leaders are the ones that have the most effect on the culture of any organisation.

Restorative organisational culture

There has been a new concept in organisations of Restorative organisational culture. It aims to create a culture that fosters proactive responsibility for addressing workplace bullying-related behaviours.

To create a workplace culture that restores workplace ethics and general decency, workplace compliance training, mitigation and prevention should be adopted. Positive roles such as intervening and defending, discussion of the dangers of negative roles, how to avoid being a passive bystander, and how to avoid bullying incidents should be covered in the training.

The Genovese Effect

Social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latan popularised this concept following the infamous murder of a woman named Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese in New York City in the year 1964.

The 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment while the neighbours failed to step in to help or even call for help. Latan and Darley explain the bystander effect as a perceived diffusion of responsibility and social influence.

The bystander effect, also known as the Genovese effect, occurs when the presence of other people discourages a person from intervening as a witness in an emergency situation like bullying, assault, kidnapping, theft, etc.

It is hypothesized that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is of an individual to offer help to a person in distress. People are more likely to act proactively in a crisis when there are few or no witnesses present.

Many factors contribute to the bystander effect in the workplace, including compliance culture, readiness of the organisation to deal with such cases, along with the presence of other passive employees that reinforce mutual denial of a situation that needs bystanders to be active and not passive.

How to be an active bystander

The behavioural and social paralysis occurring in the bystander effect can be reduced with awareness and workplace compliance training.

One technique is to take action as if you are the only person witnessing an incident.

Often, when a single person takes action, even if only to shout out, “Hey, what’s going on?”, it can encourage others to take action as well. Being an active bystander is most effective when you assume that you are the sole person in charge and also give directions to other bystanders to assist.

To be an active bystander, you need to understand some of the following signs of bullying and act immediately.

Aggression – Yelling or shouting at an employee is one of the most common forms of anger in the workplace.

Personal Insults – insults that are made on a personal level are considered more reprehensible and intolerable than others and can cause psychological damage.

Intrusive behaviour – can be explained as any behaviour that crosses the boundaries of a person. These boundaries are not only physical in nature but emotional as well. Things like pestering someone with questions about their personal lives, intimate details about their relationship, questions about their income, giving unsolicited advice on a person’s appearance, etc, are some examples of intrusive behaviours that are not physical in nature.

Tampering with someone’s personal belongings without them knowing, unnecessarily lurking around their desk, stalking, spying, etc., are examples of intrusive behaviour that are physical in nature.

Coercion – is an ugly form of manipulation. Here the bully aggressively forces or persuades someone to do or say things that are against their will, desire and judgement.

Punishment – Punishing an employee with physical discipline, salary deduction, psychologically through passive aggression, or emotionally through isolation or any other tactics when not necessary is toxic.

Belittling – Persistently being dismissive of someone for their ideas, opinions, work, or personal circumstances.

Embarrassment – degrading or humiliating a person. As a bystander, you should stand up and help the individual if they aren’t able to speak up for themselves.

Revenge – Here are some examples:

  • Sabotaging a colleague’s work.
  • Spreading a false unpleasant rumor about a colleague.
  • Hiding a co-worker’s belongings.
  • Plotting a scheme to get a co-worker fired.

Offensive communication – This is one of the most under-recognised offences bullies get away with. This is mostly because communicating offensively by using profanity, demeaning jokes, untrue rumours or gossip, or harassment is sometimes considered normal in many workplace cultures. Blocking advancement or growth:

Threatening – Threatening in the form of unwarranted punishment, measures to discipline an individual, termination, and/or physical, emotional, or psychological abuse is a form of threatening. In this case, the bystander should help the employee check their workplace compliance policies and find avenues for reporting this behaviour, such as the board of directors, journalists, etc.


It’s important to acknowledge inappropriate behaviour be an active bystander, and call out or report behaviour that you perceive to be inappropriate.

Training your staff on workplace compliance is also a way to ensure your organisation is safe for all.

Sentrient’s workplace compliance policy builders help you create effective workplace compliance policies in accordance with your brand identity. With this cloud-based workplace compliance policy builder, you can easily roll out and store policies where everyone can gain access to them whenever they want.

We also provide legally compliant, easy-to-understand courses on workplace compliance designed for Australian businesses including:

To get a free demo of our online compliance course on workplace bullying, call us at 1300 040 459 or email us at info@sentrient.com.au.