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Workplace Bullying: The Bully’s Spell Over the Bystander

If you have ever been bullied, were you surprised that your closest co-workers may not have come to your defense?  In addition to taking a ‘blow’ from a bully, when a target is perhaps at their lowest point, they sometimes turn around and there is no one ‘in the school yard’ standing behind them.  Consider a group email sent by a co-worker to a peer group calling down another worker’s idea and leaving that worker out of the email loop.  You receive the email and see your co-worker and friend is being made fun of and doesn’t even know it!   This has happened before in various forms such as one on one gossip and group settings (all while this other person was absent).  What do you do?  Here are some choices; which ones would you do?  Which ones would you not do?  Anything else come to mind?

  1. Read and re-read the email; and feeling uncomfortable with what is happening, you call your closest friend and talk about it.  Then you go on with your day with this at the back of your mind.
  2. Respond to the entire group (since the email was sent to the entire group to begin with) and suggest a new way to resolve this issue.  You include the absent co-worker on the email and note it was inappropriate to exclude this person in the first place; standing up for the person who was excluded.
  3. You ignore this all together, saying ‘that’s just the way this person is’.
  4. You see someone did respond, trying to hold this person accountable for their email.  You then decide to support this person and the worker with a return email: ‘I agree’ in order to support the target and the person who stood up initially.
  5. Once the supportive email was sent, you call that person to say “Great email, I was thinking the same”. Then proceed to move along with your day.
  6. Once the supportive email was sent, you call that person to say “Great email, I was thinking the same”.  You also call the target and offer support.  Then proceed to move along with your day.
  7. Once the supportive email was sent, you call that person to say “Great email, I was thinking the same”.  You also call the target and offer support.  Then you email the group to say the same.
  8. You call the bully to try and ‘get to the bottom of things’ first by being curious and not accusing, then making sure you are clear with the wrong-doing. (They will likely be defensive, be prepared). Better yet, do a call with a co-worker, peer or friend to then call the bully – having a witness is stronger.

There are many reasons why colleagues might not come to the aid of a target. These include:

  1. Often, colleagues have very little real understanding of the tactics of bullying such as guilt, sarcasm, manipulation, psychological violence, etc; especially if it hasn’t happened to them.
  2. People are so used to the bully behaving this way that it is considered as  “normal” behavior.
  3. The bystander wants the bully’s approval for something such as a promotion, an award or inclusion in a group.  Why stand up for someone else who is being bullied and then risk being left out by the bully (retribution)?
  4. By spreading misinformation such as half truths, lies or withholding, the bully starts to create ‘power over’ the target and others.  A distorted picture is created and this is what the bully wants everyone to see.
  5. The bully goes to great lengths to undermine their target and portray them as ineffective, unethical or incompetent by manipulating people’s perceptions of the target.  Eventually, colleagues are encouraged to regard the target as a threat. People take on the bully’s view of the target as the bully is so convincing that ‘everyone seems to feel this way’ – people rarely fact check.
  6. The bully is a smooth, slimy, psycho-path inclined individual who is nice in public; aggressive in private.  This is deceptive behavior.
  7. The bully often creates an alliance with a colleague who has a similar disposition.  This adds to the level of disfunction; even while not really knowing the target!  In addition, the bully is often able to convince emotionally needy bystanders to fold in as controlled supporters.
  8. Very few people, when put to the test, have the integrity and moral courage to stand up against bullying.  It is easier to ignore or minimize the event.
  9. The bully’s response serves to minimize the real impact of what is going on – often responding with comebacks when caught such as: “that’s in the past”, “focus on the future”, “what’s in the past is no longer relevant”, “you need to move on”, etc. Denial, discounting, minimizing…
  10. The “I didn’t know what to do” excuse is used to abdicate and deny any responsibility.  Bystanders who use this excuse make no effort to find out.  Question: Would you do this if it were your child your co-worker or a loved one?

This is written for the 1000’s of targets who have suffered, the 100’s of people who have stood by a target but felt alone. For the people who did not receive the support from their co-workers and friends, and for all the people who will make a new decision to do the ‘right thing’ to be an up-stander even though it might not be popular or  feel comfortable.  Here’s to an empowered, united future.


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8 responses to “Workplace Bullying: The Bully’s Spell Over the Bystander”

  1. Blair Hodgkinson says:

    Like one of the people above, I experienced severe harassment and workplace bullying at TELUS. I had worked there for several years and enjoyed the experience greatly, but everything changed when I had to go on temporary modified duties for health reasons. Suddenly, I was targeted for false allegations, held to different standards and subjected to relentless harassment both at the office and after hours at home. Months passed and after calls to the Union, the HR Respectful Workplace Division and even the Police failed to end the attacks, I ended up resigning. They never even paid the full promised severance package. I lost everything (family, home, savings and investments) and my physical and mental health worsened. Deep in depression, I eventually attempted to end my own life. By dumb luck, I survived and the mental health system has intervened to turn my illness around. Still, I’m starting out again with nothing and the manager who instigated this abuse (with many other victims as well) got promoted. At least I have survived to speak out for other people suffering from the silent epidemic of workplace bullying. Given that I have a second chance, I’m hoping to spend it finding meaningful ways to help other victims and raise general public awareness about this terrible secret abuse that ruins so many lives and costs our economy and social programs so many billions of dollars annually.

  2. anonimous says:

    Most of the people that are doing these types of things are also doing things that are illegal ie harassing someone of a protected group. To force HR to deal with it, this is the avenue that needs to be taken. Also, if it is in the medical profession JACO has now made bullying a sentinel event. Things can be stopped, but one has to be extremely strong and still will most likely suffer trauma.

  3. Leonard Nolt says:


    Thank you for your article on bystanders that watch and do nothing when someone is being bullied. I’m very familiar with that experience having been the target of a workplace bully for over two and a half years (2004-2006) at my former employer, St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.

    In addition to your list of reasons why colleagues do not come to the aid of a target, you might add the fact that we live in a world where derogatory, critical, and malicious behavior is often used as entertainment, especially on TV and in movies. Witnesses to bullying, not realizing the seriousness of the problem and that the target is being injured, may see the bullying as simply a macabre form of live entertainment in a work situation that would otherwise be predictable and boring.

    Number 9 above also deserves re-emphasis. The order to “move on” which I received from management after it was documented that I was being injured (PTSD), and after they refused to address the bully’s behavior, is especially malicious. Trying to impose amnesia on a target of bullying or expecting the target to impose amnesia on himself is unbelievably ridiculous, irresponsible, and harmful. A person with PTSD does not simply remember or recall what happened, they relive it, over and over again, until the problem is solved and treatment and healing provided, which may take years. Even though I worked for a medical center and my employer diagnosed me as being injured on the job, I was never offered protection from additional injury or treatment for the injury. I had to seek, obtain, and pay for my treatment myself. After working there for 30 years, I had to get another job to escape from the bully.

    If you wish to read more about my experience check my blog at under the heading “Workplace Psychological Abuse.”

    The target of a bully must always consider that the bully my have a “special” inappropriate relationship with a member of management. Therefore getting help from management might be impossible.

    At some cost to myself, I try to publicize what happened to me. My goal is to raise awareness and thereby prevent other from being injured. However bullies and those in management who support them do not want their bad behavior publicized. That makes it all the more important that witnesses to bullying intervene by reporting the bullying. If that doesn’t help and it often does not, a caring listener can make a world of difference to a bully victim. It’s unbelievable how alone and isolated the target of a bully will be.

    Thanks for addressing this important issue.
    Leonard Nolt
    Boise, Idaho

  4. Donna Whitfield says:

    I saw your program this morning about workplace bullying and I wanted to be able to tell my story.

    Since 2006, I was forced to take LTDI on two separate occasions; I suffered from clinical depression, anxiety and panic disorder. This condition was brought on and exacerbated by treatment I received by my Supervisor and Manager. The bullying was constant and very subtle. Co-workers were appauled at their treatment of me but were too afraid to come forward fearing reprocussions. I tried to bring the situation to the attention of higher authority but my concerns fell on deaf ears.

    When attempting to return to my job after the last LTDI lasting 10 months; my supervisor and manager insisted I was not ‘capable’ of doing my job and were not about to assist me to a healthy return. My Doctor submitted numerous letters requesting my employer to be compassionate and to stop the bullying as it was very detrimental to my health. His letters were not taken into account even by higher authorities. Finally, in 2009 I was offered a transfer to a different department under different supervision. Thankfully, I have been able to remain at work for over a year now.

    I resent very much the loss of salary, the loss of my health (although I am better the effects are ongoing and I will possibly never be able to go off of the medications), and the breakup of my marriage of 17 years.

    Bullying should be taken very seriously as the effects of it can be permanent and devastating, it can turn your life upside down.

    I’d like to add that the ‘bullies’ still hold their positions and it is my understanding other staff feel the effects of the bullying but are too afraid to come forward.

    I work for the Provincial Government.

  5. Call me Anne says:

    Wow would I love to come to the workshop you’re offering at my organization later this month, but wow would that be a stupid thing for me to do. It may be illegal to openly discriminate against whistle-blowers or even people who ask questions, but there are still a million ways to punish “over-assertiveness” in the workplace and get away with it. All you have to do is stop answering a person’s email; never be available for meetings; pile on more work to shut a person up; and then take every public opportunity to belittle or embarrass; all the while continuing to host HR’s every “respect in the workplace” seminars without even blinking. What can I do? Realistically — not very much!

  6. Robin Seguin says:

    I recently resigned from my position as the HR Manager at a not-for-profit organization due to the bullying behaviour towards myself and other staff members by the Executive Director. I, and another resigned staff member submitted complaints to the Board of Directors and an investigation was launched and has now been completed. The BOD have made a decision not to advise me whether or not they found the ED culpable of bullying in the workplace and have declared the case closed. The Executive Director remains in her position to this day. It seems to me that the whistleblowers are treated with disbelief or ignored altogether in favour of the leaders/bullies of organizations. In my case, processes were likely followed but the outcome of the investigation was up to the discretion of the BOD. Essentially, the BOD is condoning the behaviour by failing to take appropriate action. Most policies and procedures address harassment and bullying in the workplace but the truth of the matter is that outcomes are rarely in favour of the victims of bullying in the workplace. This sets the tone for others not to report the bullying for fear of reprisal, loss of opportunities, loss of job, etc. Unfortunately, the victims of bullying in the workplace often put up with it or resign to escape it because they lack the support necessary to deal with it.

  7. Lynn Coldwell says:

    I was bullied by my boss within Telus for months. Was very subtle at first and didnt want to believe it was happening. Due to the bullying I fell into a depression and was forced to go on disability. I tried to get help from the union and followed the process with the ‘Respectful in the Workplace’ Policy. Since I was not at work at the time no one would help me and was told I needed to come back to work to start the RITW process. I ended up leaving Telus. I started disability in June 07 and left Telus in March 09. I had been with Telus for over 25 yrs when this took place and endured a enormous amt of mental and physical pain. This needs to stop and bullies need to take responsibility. This manager is still employed with several employees under him. This ruined my career with Telus and now unemployed looking for work.

  8. Andy Horton says:

    Sometimes, the bystander has to choose his battles to fight. That does not explain the attitude of the Shop Steward. Sometimes, they are the same personality type as the Bully.

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Valerie Cade, CSP is a Workplace Bullying Expert, Speaker and Author of "Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now!" which has been distributed in over 100 countries worldwide. For presentations and consulting on workplace bullying prevention and respectful workplace implementation, go to

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