Bystanders to bullying: Thought vs. action

What happens when individuals observe others being mistreated at work? How do they regard the aggressor and the target? Do they actively side with the aggressor, or perhaps rush to help the target? Or maybe they do nothing.

A study of how people perceive aggression between others by Tara Reich and M. Sandy Hershcovis of the University of Manitoba may not answer all these questions, but it lends some insights worth considering.

“Observing aggression”

Presenting their paper “Observing aggression” at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s annual conference in Chicago last Friday, Tara Reich described two experiments in which participants observed aggressive behaviors by an individual toward a 3rd party, both of whom — unbeknownst to the participants — were actors.  The purpose of the experiments was to gauge participants’ attitudes and behaviors toward aggressors and targets.


It may come as no surprise that observers, on the whole, demonstrated more negative attitudes and more negative behaviors toward the aggressors. Indeed, if we are to have any hope for humanity, we’d expect people to be disapproving of those who commit aggressive or abusive behaviors and to show that disapproval in some way or another.


The results concerning observers’ attitudes and actions toward targets proved more twisty and interesting.

Observers’ attitudes toward targets did not worsen and, in fact, may have reflected sympathy for their plight. However, observers’ behaviors toward targets became more negative, similar to the rate of negative behaviors they directed toward aggressors.

Relevance to bullying

Okay, so this is one experiment, conducted in a very controlled setting, and not even set in a K-12 school or a workplace. And yet, these results have a strong ring of truth in them, at least to me, with special pertinence to bullying and mobbing behaviors at work, in schools, and in society generally.

Some random reactions:

Haven’t we seen other examples over time where bystanders who had no previous stake in a given relationship between two people nevertheless joined in on the abuse toward the target?

Even if observers do not feel more negatively toward the target, the target himself can only presume that the negative behavior he’s experiencing is due to animus, yes? This exacerbates the target’s feelings of mistreatment and abandonment.

Doesn’t this also shed some light on how mobs form, i.e., how people are enlisted into a group for the purpose of mobbing someone they do not personally dislike or oppose?

Clearly, these lines of inquiry are worth following.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

Worker suicides and the economy

Lest anyone doubt that a severe recession can have devastating effects on the psyches of affected workers, here is some evidence worth taking very seriously.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times (link here), reports on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study indicating that among working age people, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

This is no quick snapshot of the current recession. The CDC study spans 80 years of data.

Confirming reportage

When reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Furthermore, Uchitelle found that “layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.  All lose some of the commitment, trust, and collegial behavior that stable employment or the expectation of stable employment normally engenders.”

Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying

During the past decade, we have learned a lot about incivility, bullying, and other negative behaviors in the workplace. However, we don’t know much about similar forms of mistreatment in academic settings.

That void is what led Susan Stewart (Western Illinois U. — Quad Cities), Nathan Bowling (Wright State U.), and Melissa Gruys (Wright State U.) to develop a study that asked graduate student members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) about their experiences with anti-social behaviors by faculty members and fellow students.

Negative consequences

Among their key initial findings is that students who reported “more mistreatment have higher levels of depression, intention to leave, and adverse physical symptoms than students reporting less mistreatment from either source.”

This should sound familiar to those who have studied bullying at work. The effects of incivility experienced by these graduate students are very similar to those reported by employees who have been targets of workplace bullying.


I believe this is a very important line of inquiry. When these behaviors are perpetrated (and not infrequently validated) in graduate and professional school settings, those on the receiving end often suffer health consequences and a loss of self-confidence. Some students — targets, bystanders, and perpetrators alike — will adopt the behaviors in their own academic and professional lives. In such cases, co-workers, clients, patients, and customers also will pay a price down the road.

Awareness training could help to prevent these behaviors. For severe situations such as targeted bullying and sexual harassment, concrete sanctions may be appropriate. In sum, academe should zealously guard freedom of expression, but not to the point of being complicit in abusive behaviors.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

Workplace violence: Boston bus driver attacked by teens

It’s well known among people who deal with risks of workplace violence that driving a taxi cab is one of the most dangerous jobs around. Unfortunately, a disturbing story out of Boston reminds us that driving a public bus also carries genuine risks.

Earlier this week, the driver of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency passenger bus was attacked by a group of teenagers, purportedly after he told one of them to put out a cigarette while on the bus. John Ellement, writing for the Boston Globe (link here), reports on the bus driver’s initial call for police help:

The … dispatcher asked for details and [the bus driver] provided them. “I have unruly passengers, a couple of kids smoking. I’m at Dudley [Street] and Hampden [Street.] Please get them here right away.”

However, the situation quickly escalated. A few minutes later the driver called back:

“Attention. This is 2157,” he says. “I was just assaulted. Got knocked out. Got my head smashed into the window. I’m still at the same location. There is a kid with his foot underneath the bus. About 10 of these kids jumped me.”

While the driver thought his bus was still on the street, the bus had, in fact, slammed into a building on Dudley Street.

The full article contains audio links to the bus driver’s call to the dispatcher and to a 911 call placed by one of the passengers.

Workplace safety and health law

The criminal justice system is getting involved with this situation, and rightly so. Travis Andersen, also for the Globe (link here), reports that two young men, ages 18 and 19, have been arrested in connection with the attack.

However, the driver may have little recourse under workplace safety laws, which haven’t quite caught up with the risks of violence on the job.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace safety laws and promulgating rules and regulations, has developed a number of guidelines, recommendations, and information resources concerning workplace violence for employers and workers, available here.  However, as OSHA concedes, there are “no specific standards for workplace violence” under federal law.

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory

Last week I referenced the Orwellian concept of unpersons, those (in the words of Wikipedia) “whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments.” Though Orwell saw the making of unpersons through the lens of totalitarian governments, many of us can comprehend how the practice applies equally to private and non-profit organizations.

In fact, it was an online exchange with a friend regarding the creation of unpersons in the non-profit sector that led us to consider the role of institutional memory, defined as (and thanks again to Wikipedia for this):

a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.

The two ideas are closely related. Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.

Those who try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being turned out and rendered unpersons themselves.

Rinse and repeat

Of course, any discussion of institutional memory should recall the Santayana chestnut that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bad organizations often fail to heed that advice. In fact, when less-than-wonderful events do repeat, the purging of institutional memory often guarantees that no one will remember the original disaster.

Easy as 1-2-3

Today, with websites often serving as the public face of an organization, the creation of unpersons and the emptying of institutional memory is as easy as editing a web page. Entire biographies and histories can be deleted in a few keystrokes. One day, all links lead to your page; the next, you don’t even exist (at least virtually)!

From abstract to concrete

Okay, this discussion has been rather abstract. But I’m guessing that many readers familiar with workplace bullying, sexual harassment, whistleblowing retaliation, and other forms of mistreatment can identify readily with the ideas here. Hopefully I’ve provided a modest backdrop for understanding the accompanying institutional responses.

Student loan debt is piling higher and deeper

The student loan debt crisis keeps getting worse. Tamar Lewin reports for the New York Times (link here) that “(s)tudent loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year and is likely to top a trillion dollars this year as more students go to college and a growing share borrow money to do so.”

Unfortunately, the trend is set to continue:

The mountain of debt is likely to grow more quickly with the coming round of budget-slashing. Pell grants for low-income students are expected to be cut and tuition at public universities will probably increase as states with pinched budgets cut back on the money they give to colleges.

So what’s new?

I realize this isn’t earth-shattering news to today’s young people or their parents. But it’s important to keep the issue alive. We’re talking about a generation that is being asked to shoulder an enormous share of financial burdens as the price for getting a start in life.

The policy and practice of supplanting scholarship monies with student loans as the primary sources of financial aid emerged in the early 1980s (not coincidentally, right after the election of Ronald Reagan as President) and remains the norm, even as college tuition continues to increase.

Lifelong “gift”

In the mid-1970s, 10 years was the standard repayment period for student loans. Now, repayment periods often stretch out over 30 years. A college graduate in her 20s can anticipate making student loan payments into her 50s. Lewin quotes Lauren Asher of the Institute for Student Access and Success:

“Things like buying a home, starting a family, starting a business, saving for their own kids’ education may not be options for people who are paying off a lot of student debt.”

‘Nuff said.

Recycling: Beware of concentrated power, economic sociopaths, and shattered assumptions

From the archives of this blog, here are three posts of possible interest:

1. Why concentrated power at work is bad (Nov. 2009) — Power does indeed corrupt, and the workplace is no exception. A brief look at what power does to our heads, literally.

2. Defining the Economic Sociopath (Nov. 2009) — Just who are these people plotting schemes to fatten their wallets and leave everyone else struggling? Some 18 months after I wrote this post, not all that much has changed.

3. Why severe workplace bullying can be so traumatic (July 2009) — Bullying at work shatters our assumptions about a just and decent world. Applying insights from a book by psychology professor Ronnie Janoff-Bulman.

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

%d bloggers like this: