October 5th, 2011

Workplace Bullying—The Triad: Bullies, Victims and Bystanders

Christine Jarvis
October 4, 2011
Suite 101

Sticks and stones may break my bones…but words won’t break my spirit!

Research conducted by the U.S.-based Workplace Bullying Institute is interesting. According to WBI, “35 percent of U.S. workers report being bullied at work…15 percent have witnessed it…68 percent of bullying is same-gender harassment; 58 percent of targets are women; and 80 percent of the time, female bullies target other women…”

What is workplace bullying and why does it happen? Ray Williams calls bullying “North America’s silent epidemic,” and says “bullying involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person—not with violence, but with words and actions.”

There are three components to the bullying triad: bullies, victims of bullying, and witnesses or bystanders.


The vast majority of bullies are bosses—managers, supervisors, and executives.

Ray Williams suggests that bullies are Type A personalities: competitive and driven, and often lacking in emotional stability.

“Above all, bullies crave power and control” Williams says, and they “seem oblivious to the trail of damage they leave behind, as long as their appetites for power and control are fulfilled.”

My theory—I call it the been there, done that (BTDT) victim’s theory and it’s based on personal experience—is that bullies are insecure, unsure of their own abilities and threatened by a show of independence and confidence in the workers they bully. Unable to reveal their feelings of inferiority to same-level colleagues, and smart enough to not bully upward against their own bosses, bullies vent their insecurities upon their subordinates.

Bullies choose as targets those subordinates who display a confidence gained through experience on the job or through achievements in life outside the workplace, a confidence that threatens the insecure bullying superior.


The BTDT victim’s theory is supported by research at the Workplace Bullying Institute, which calls itself “the first and only U.S. organization dedicated to the eradication of workplace bullying.” According to WBI, “the targets of office bullies…are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees…”

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests a higher percentage of female bullies and targets is due to women’s “open jealousy and envy.” Women, Namie suggests, are “hypersensitive and hypercritical, focusing on tiny details. Those details are then used as a basis to “tear into each other.”

Independent workers pose the greatest threat to bullies. When targets refuse to be controlled and intimidated, the abusive behaviour escalates. When the typical victim of bullying has had enough, realizes that neither the bully’s superiors nor Human Resources will do anything to stop the abuse and quits the job, the workplace often loses the best, the brightest and the most experienced.

Bystanders (Witnesses)

Co-workers often know when one of their number is being bullied. Either they see or hear something, or a victim confides what is happening.

Why doesn’t somebody do something?

Ever notice an accident off to the side of the road as you are driving? Ever look over, curious to know what happened but glad it wasn’t you in that mess?

If emergency services are on the scene most drivers continue past the accident scene without stopping. Somebody else is looking after things.

If authorities are not on scene, and if it is safe for you to do so, you might stop to see if help has already been called and if there is some comfort you can give until professional helpers arrive to do their job. But if the situation poses a threat to your own safety, you are less likely to become directly involved.

Bystanders are often useful and compassionate at the scene of a workplace collision, too. They listen to the victim and blanket her with sympathy. But it is a rare worker who will put his or her own workplace well being in jeopardy by giving a detailed, objective, eyewitness account of bullying incidents to authorities. We live in perilous economic times. Many workers are afraid to draw a bully’s attention away from the usual targeted victim toward themselves.

This self-interest on the part of bystanders is understandable, but ultimately not helpful to a bully’s victim.

Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Read more at Suite101: Workplace Bullying—The Triad: Bullies, Victims and Bystanders


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 at 9:18 am and is filed under WBI in the News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. kachina says:

    I was told explicitly by my manager that my confidence and experience intimidated co-workers. This was reframed on performance appraisals as unsatisfactory performance, as “others” (who provided no evidence and did not approach me directly) had “difficulty” with me.

    A mediator was engaged at my request, and a meeting open to all employees who confirmed that they had difficulty with me was held. The individuals alleged to have complaints denied having difficulty with me and did not attend. Two employees attended, indicating that they did not have difficulty with me, but had been directed to attend by the manager. A third employee acknowledged that she had had difficulty, had approached me directly, and had been satisfied with my response. Our immediate supervisor also attended….evidently as an entertainment as she took the role of spectator.

    The mediator indicated that the way I had been treated was “immature and immoral”. and that I was “owed an appropriate response?” and that was the end of it. No changes, no response, nothing.Evidently I was supposed to feel satisfied that a meeting had been called (isn’t that what I’d asked for?).
    Two years after I left that workplace, I still can’t figure out who were bullies and who were bystanders. It is clear that everyone knew, since all had been invited to the meeting. I became identified as the “problem”, and effected the best solution I could when I resigned.

    Somehow I doubt that bullying was a short-lived issue in that workplace and disappeared when I did.

    • TwilightZone says:

      No, chances are the bullies selected another target to be mobbed. Serial bullies get an ego boost from rallying staff against a perceived “threat to the organization”. Like most targets, we weren’t the first to be attacked and we certainly won’t be the last.

  2. kay says:

    This is all very accurate. It’s sad. I’m always worried and looking out for others in daily life and that is part of the reason why I have a hard time dealing with the bystander thing.

    In my case witnesses were bulllied and had immediate retaliation. She was carted off to “randome computer selected” drug test right after it was revealed that she protested verbally.

    She then said “I’d better not say anything else, there gonna have dogs at my desk” It stressed me out because I never want someone to be harmed because of me. I almost want to be sure that witnesses that I am fond of would say nothing so they are protected, but then I’m hurt at knowing that those certain persons didnt say more. Its strange.

    I love the quote at the end.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      I can’t be tough on the bystanders. They are following unstated rules that are fairly powerfull:

      Have respect for authority.
      Mind your own business.
      Don’t jump to conclusions.
      Give the person the benefit of the doubt.
      Who appointed you judge and jury?
      Try not to make things worse.

      Bullying is not well defined and it certainly isn’t illegal.

      Organizing victims and targets will help. And setting up agreed action to take in bullying situations will tell volunteers what to do under actual circumstances.

  3. TwilightZone says:

    Bystanders can often be manipulated by bully bosses into participating in the cruelty. Clever bullies use gossip and innuendo to demonize targets and reward their collaborators with special privileges. The bully is able to facilitate a sense of comradery and closeness among the subordinates she unites to mob the target. Women I think, are more susceptible to this tactic because they value being part of the clique. It’s an instinct that doesn’t just go away after high school.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      Employees trained for medical emergencies no what to do when someone is injured, passes out, has signs of a stroke or is choking.

      Someday some employees may be trained as to what to do when bullying happens. Until then we will have to rely on people to follow their instincts.

      • kachina says:

        When people are relying on instinct, they are in self-preservation mode. I understand and accept the need for that. In fact, I’d have saved myself too if I’d had the opportunity. I feel fortunate that I was “forced” by my wisdom and foresight to recognize that I could not salvage my reputation and career, and resigned before further damage was incurred to my body, mind, and spirit. I ache for the people still subjected to the conditions at the workplace I left…and no, I was not the last to be blessed with departure one way or another!

      • Jay Jacobus says:

        It’s hard to help someone who is anonymous and it’s also hard to pressure companies that support bullying but do it under the radar.

        I wouldn’t be a bystander if I knew who to help and who to hinder.

    • Eva says:

      You’re right on the mark. Strength in numbers.

  4. Celia Harrison says:

    It makes a huge difference to a target of bullying if coworkers offer support and speak up for them. It helps decrease the psychological damage and serves as role modeling for others. It greatly influences the behavior of other bewildered and fearful observers of workplace bullying when they see someone empowered enough to speak up. Some of the role modeling can be something as simple as refusing to participate in gossiping about a target and making a statement loudly about it.

    • kachina says:

      It does make a difference…and it is never too late!

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      I am thinking of one boss who was particularly abrasive and I would imagine that he had targets other than me, but I didn’t witness his treatment of other people.

      I am thinking of another boss who demanded absolute loyalty in the face of many stupid mistakes. Some people stayed out of his way and other people sucked up to him. None asked for help.

      In the first case I quit without saying anything and in the second case I stayed out of the bully’s way. His special target outranked me and I never considered that it was my place to intercede.

      The last toxic boss was on my case solely but he had no other employees.

      Its very difficult to spot a victim unless they speak up and most people do not want to single themselves out. So, they grin and bear it.

      In many cases bystanders don’t realize the effect that that the bully has on other people or they are not in a position to take action.

      As far as I know, no one on this website has been asked to get involved with a specific situation. Yet, if we were, we would be in a position to expose a bully or his company.

  5. J. says:

    Now that I have been away from my bullying administrators for a few months with a settlement that was favorable to me, I am angered by one thing more than anything else – they were never outed. They are free to continue and move on to the next targets with impunity and the truth about my exit will never be known to my former coworkers. I would really like for those who were complicit (as opposed to the bystanders) to know how much their bosses’ actions cost their employer.

    I would like to see these people outed, not for revenge but out of fairness. I got revenge when they were forced to write me a check and I happily left their employment voluntarily, but I would like to see them stopped from doing it to others in future. I would like them to be known for what they are, nasty, shallow, underqualified, jealous, petty, backstabbing, lying, frauds. I make no apologies for feeling that way.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      If you decide to do something about your feelings, you can send anti-bullying flyers to employees at your school.

      I would generalize the flyers about bullying and then, at the end, write “This goes on at your school. If it happens to you, contact __________ for advice.”

      • J. says:

        I had thought about doing something similar via email. That’s an interesting idea. I can’t imagine anyone acting on it because they are all either bullied into the ground, or enablers, but it might get a point across.

      • Jay Jacobus says:

        It is good to spread the word about bullying. It will give the targets actions to take and it will sensitize bullies to possible damage to their reputations.

        Until law suits become effective, sensitizing bullies is one tactic to deter bullying.

  6. Tarabeatty says:

    My situation is what seems a typical example. Bullying tactics were initially carried out covertly, behind closed doors, and i was busy, unaware a campaign to demolish my credibility was underway. The overwhemling work, made exponentially more overwhelming by seemingly passive lack of supervisory support, meant i began to show signs of stress and exhaustion. This was prime opportunity for the bully to play the ‘mental health card’ which was instrumental in making me seem ‘the problem’ as i scrambled to keep up my work. My supervisor appears outwardly a likeable, gentle and kind person. She also befriended me and was vocal for several years in her appreciation of me, and stated i was even the reason she remained at this stressful job under which she was crumbling at the time. My committment to my job and caring about my ‘friend’ and supportive but struggling supervisor delayed my acceptance of the problems she was creating; i felt I needed to remain strong and work through the problems on my own, so for a long time i tried to work it out with her directly, not complaining to others. Last thing i wanted to do was implicate her as incompetent or even cruel. Once i realized this was no ‘friend’, rather, a person who has been working to isolate, defame and ultimately eject me from my job, it was too late; others were brought on board, seeded with innuendo over time, and eventually fully supported my supervisor who appeared to be a well-meaning fantastic person faced with a great challenge: a terrible, difficult, wretched, and very ‘disturbed’ manipulative employee (me) who she has bent over backward to support. She was the true ‘victim’ in others’ minds. Those who were aware of the truth; those who spoke up on my behalf, were seen as having been manipulated by me, and eventually the group-think took hold that i deserved the string of abbhorrent treatment that followed. Two people directly supported me, the bureau director (who was fired a month ago), and my significant other who is still there but has suffered from fear of retaliation, and a drastic decline in credibility amongst his peers and superiors. I have been set for constructive termination and went out on FMLA after crumbling under stress and decline of health. I lost so much, including my job functions (i was stripped of my role where i was specially trained and worked at the past 6 yrs, but working 12 yrs toward the career goals of my specific area; i was moved to a position where i have no related skills or interest while my specific vacated position goes unfilled yet deemed critical) and HR requested cutting my access to the work email so i cant even receive msgs about jobs i apply for, or about personnel things like FMLA paperwork. That is so unusual that the common assumption by those at my workplace is that a personnel action is underway; however i have zero reprimands and only a solid commendable history of work accomplishments in reality.

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