If one witnesses bullying in the workplace, should one do anything?
June 12, 2016 1:48 AM   Subscribe

If one employee witnesses a second employee bully a third employee, should the witness do anything? If so, what?

In a workplace, Belinda used to bully Anne. At the time, Anne addressed this matter directly with Belinda and Anne is not bullied by Belinda anymore.

A new colleague, Claire, joins the organisation. Anne sees Belinda bully Claire and recognises this behaviour as similar to that which she endured. Anne senses that Claire is not happy. Petra (who manages Anne, Belinda and Claire) appears to be unaware of the situation.

Should Anne do anything? If so, what? Does this depend on anything, for example, location or workplace culture? Should Anne just mind her own business and even consider leaving the organisation?

I have changed all the names and made everyone female in this illustration. Do gender roles have a part to play? I think that if children were involved, the situation would be different - in this case, everyone is over the age of majority.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is this a hypothetical? A situation for a story you are writing? Or a question about a real life problem?
posted by blueberry at 2:22 AM on June 12, 2016

You certainly aren't obligated to do anything about it, and actively confronting Belinda on Claire's behalf isn't the way to go either.

I tend to think that gender roles don't play any role at all. Bullying in bullying plain and simple no matter what. What I would do is gauge how comfortable Claire might be with you saying something to her in a low pressure way, about how you see that she is being pushed around a little bit, and you know that Belinda does that to people, including yourself.

If Belinda responds well to being directly told to stop, tell Claire, and then back off. It's up to her to have that encounter.

And if you're feeling uncomfortable in the workplace you absolutely should think about leaving, or at least saying something to HR. You spend hours a day there, and being constantly uncomfortable is a one way street to unhappiness
posted by Gargantuantoe at 2:26 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what constitutes bullying here. Some of it is more subjective (which does not make it more wrong or hurtful) than other types. For example, physical abuse is certainly clear cut. But other forms of bullying are less definitive, and thus, the 'victim' may not feel victimised or may be unhappy with intervention. Can you clairfy what is happening?
posted by jojobobo at 2:28 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, she should do something about it. She may want to raise this through a person in authority rather than directly though.

Does Anne have 1-to-1 sessions with Petra? Can she raise it then? Petra should be aware of it, and should be stepping in if she's any kind of manager.

Is she a member of a union - can she speak to a union rep?
posted by plep at 2:47 AM on June 12, 2016

Should Belinda do anything?

Yes, she should stop bullying people. :)

Did you mean to ask Should Anne do anything?
posted by plep at 2:48 AM on June 12, 2016

Should Belinda just mind her own business and even consider leaving the organisation?

If Petra is made aware of the problem, and doesn't do anything, then that points to an issue with the organisation as a whole condoning bullying, in which case she might want to consider leaving an unsafe working environment.

There is the old saying that employees leave managers.....

Petra may need to be made aware of the problem. Although, as a manager, she should be looking for feedback directly from staff, and if she's not aware of it this may also be a symptom of a problem (cutting her some slack if she's new to management, but still).
posted by plep at 3:05 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

My employer has policies about bullying and if you witness it you're supposed to tell someone (by someone, the policy outlines the options you have there). Stopping bullying can't be all on the person being bullied.

Anne should speak to Claire, either encouraging her to tell Belinda to stop or encouraging her to speak to Petra. Even just speaking to Claire to show her support helps diffuse the effects; Claire is no longer alone.

Incidentally that's one of the ways children are taught to help fellow students: if a bully is picking on a kid, other kids as bystanders who say nothing inadvertently become accomplices. Standing up to the bully is a lot to ask but going up to the victim and saying, hey, come play catch with me/lets go sit somewhere else/etc can diffuse the situation.
posted by kitten magic at 3:42 AM on June 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

Agree with kittenmagic. I believe in this situation especially, Anne has an obligation to speak out since she is more than just a casual observer. Her own experience informs her enough to recognize signs.

That being said- is bullying in the eye of the beholder? Just because Anne recognizes Belinda's behavior as bullying because to her, that's what bulling looked AND felt like- it just may be possible that Claire has zero problem with Belinda's actions. "Sensing she is not happy" is also subjective.

Speak to Petra (or someone in authority capable of taking action, like HR) and then let it go. Such speaking would, IMO, consist of explaining the pattern you are observing and wanting to help both Claire not be a victim of bullying and Belinda not be a bully. For the good of the company, and the good of all concerned. Because patterns drive behavior and people's behavior is what forms a company culture.

Anne should speak out enough to make a case, then leave it up to those capable of handling it. That's all she can do. Then decide what her own response will be.

For me, how this plays out would be the prime indicator of whether Anne should leave the company. Management seemingly condoning a bullying culture would be my last straw, not really a single person's actions.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:07 AM on June 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Assuming you're asking if Anne should do anything...

My hunch is that Anne should take Claire aside for a chat about how "hey, I noticed this was going on, and here's how I handled it when it was happening to me and it seemed to work. But if you just wanna vent and need an ear I'm here too."

This lets Claire know she has support and that this stuff isn't in her head. But it also lets Claire have the control and the agency in deciding how to handle her own problem. When you're being bullied, sometimes you feel powerless, and someone giving you agency to take the lead in how to handle something can be very, very healing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:22 AM on June 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

blueberry: It is an abstraction of a real-life situation. It is not for a story, no.

plep and others: Well spotted. I will ask the mods to edit the original post.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 4:49 AM on June 12, 2016

[Typo (Belinda instead of Anne) fixed.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:52 AM on June 12, 2016

The least that Anne could do would be to write down a short paragraph about what she witnessed, the date, who else was there, what was said and how it was said, etc. any time there is an incident and keep it at home and confidential. If Claire ever makes a formal complaint and claims Anne as a witness to one or more incidents, it will help both to have a written record made at the time, and not have to rely on old memories.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 4:58 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Anne should tell Petra. It's the manager's job to handle this.

If Petra doesn't handle it well, Anne should consider coaching Claire about standing up to Belinda (mostly by telling C her own story), telling HR, and talking to Belinda herself -- in that order. Talking to B herself has some possible downsides, so it might not be a good idea (e.g., to Petra it might look like A is stirring up trouble).

Gender roles: if A is male but C is female, he should consider that C's attempts to stand up to B may not have the same impact as his did, and he should include his own tale of being bullied when talking to Petra to reduce the chance of looking like a white knight. Also, if everyone is female except Petra, Petra might need some help perceiving the bullying.
posted by salvia at 9:03 AM on June 12, 2016

Oh, and if A is male but C is female, he definitely shouldn't speak to B about it. (I have really mixed feelings on whether A should ever speak to B about it, even as the very last resort, regardless of genders.)
posted by salvia at 9:08 AM on June 12, 2016

A does not want to be talking about B behind her back, becoming the office gossip and triangulating B and C without being asked.

A should offer a more generalized mentorship-type relationship with C. Hey, Claire, it seems you're kind of unhappy or frustrated sometimes. I've been here a while and found ways to deal with certain things. If you ever need any advice about the non-technical stuff, office politics, you know... I'm happy to share tips any time. If C brings it up, then A can tell her story. A should also be careful about the tone - B is not a bad person and it's not us against her. B is a good person, but like everyone else, has some quirks. I've found a strategy to get the most out of the relationship that might also help you.

Now, P:
A should also mention to P that she's observing a thing that MAY be going on. P should keep an eye out for the same thing. P should NOT take A's word for it and do anything drastic. P can talk to C, P can increase presence and gently intervene, P can have a talk with B. What P can NOT do is discuss B with A extensively behind B's back. P's actions might be invisible to A, so A should not quit right away if it seems like nothing is being done. A can periodically remind P that the situation does not seem to be fixed. (Not every day. changing behavior takes time.)

A might decide to quit if:
B's actions are intolerable to be around (hostile work environment), even if C is ok with it. A should mention that to P, because P might understand that A is just concerned about C.

Or if P straight up says she's not going to do anything, and A is not ok with that.
posted by ctmf at 10:29 AM on June 12, 2016

I'm sort of baffled by the responses here. Anne and Claire are colleagues. Were I Anne, I would go to Claire and say "Listen, I saw what happened this afternoon. Belinda used to do the same thing to me. I took her aside and told her explicitly not to do that again, and we have not had a problem since."

I mean, it's an apparently resolvable problem you have experience solving; why would you not share that experience with someone in need of it?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:36 PM on June 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

As someone who's been "Claire", I wholeheartedly agree with DarlingBri. It would have helped me so much just to know someone else knew my bully wasn't the golden child everyone else seemed to think he was.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 6:27 AM on June 13, 2016

Also I have to take issue with the "bullying is in the eye of the beholder" line. Stuff like that is part of the reason bullies rarely end up being held accountable. Bullying is, in fact, a very specific, easily recognizable dynamic even if the particular behaviors may vary. It's not being pushy or bossy or someone losing their temper (someone could treat you like crap the entire time they worked with you and still not be a bully). It's a targeted campaign aimed at denigrating another person who is perceived as not being able to fight back which give pleasure to the one doing the targeting. You know it when you see it, especially if you've experienced it firsthand. Don't second guess yourself.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 7:05 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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