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How to challenge toxic behaviour and help someone being bullied or harassed at work

The average person will spend more than 3,500 days at work, so toxic behaviour in the workplace can have a big impact on your wellbeing.

Whether it’s the sexual assault of a theatre nurse by a senior surgeon, harassment at Westminster, or the allegations against Russell Brand (which he denies), workplace scandals arising from unacceptable behaviour are happening on an all too regular basis.

Very often, workplace bullying or harrassment is inflicted by someone in a position of authority. These perpetrators are firmly to blame, of course, but victims can be met with silence from bystanders.

If you witness someone being bullied or harassed at work, you might be reluctant to intervene for many reasons. You might feel scared to speak up because you’re young, new or worried about the aggressor turning on you. You might wonder what others will think or hold back in the hope that someone else speaks up first. Or, even if you witness one incident or a pattern of abuse, you may not believe you are directly affected. It can seem easier in the moment to turn a blind eye or walk on by.

More than one in five of the respondents to a 2021 survey by Culture Shift, a bullying reporting service for companies, said they would distance themselves from somebody being bullied in their workplace to avoid conflict themselves, seeing it as not worth the hassle to get involved. If they witnessed someone being bullied by somebody senior to them, 28% said they would be afraid to get involved.

But not challenging the objectionable behaviour of others, whether in our workplaces or our families or wider society, implicitly permits it to happen. Ultimately, this perceived acceptability could serve to excuse workplace harassment and bullying. In time, it could even normalise toxic behaviour.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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Confronting workplace bullying

While researching intervention, I was inspired by law expert Rachel Fenton’s work on how bystanders can help challenge problematic behaviour. I developed a bystander intervention programme at University College Cork.

It’s a blended learning and training course that aims to educate and empower staff and students to recognise all forms of sexual hostility, harassment and violence while studying or at work. It also aims to teach people how to make safe and effective interventions if they witness bullying or harassment.

Despite the common perception that an intervention requires a confrontation, there are a range of possible responses that can often be even more effective. Witnesses of toxic behaviour at work can use one of several tactics:

  • distraction, for example asking a question of the bully or calling on them to complete a task that takes them away from the situation
  • removing the victim, which is often easier after distraction, and simply involves helping the victim to leave the scene discreetly
  • reporting the behaviour to a person in authority, ideally having first checked in with the victim
  • creating allies, which can help address the fear of being the lone voice objecting to the bully
  • providing support by helping the victim feel seen and believed, whether directly or through referral to support services.

Once you become aware of ongoing toxic behaviour, you could even plan these interventions in advance to try to avoid escalation. But if a confrontation still seems like the only option, finding someone better positioned to intervene may be the best route. This could be another person in authority, the bully’s line manager, a member of HR or even the police.

It can be hard to take a stand when everyone else is staying silent. Bokeh Stock/Shutterstock

Taking a stand

The aim of any bystander intervention training is to help people realise that, whatever your limits, capacities or status, everyone has the power to take a stand – we can all play a part in changing a toxic environment.

So, you could suggest this kind of training in your workplace or school. When I survey participants after the UCC Bystander Intervention programme, most say they believe they could make a difference in respect of sexual harassment and violence on campus. Most also report a better understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and violence, and feel they could intervene in a threatening or dangerous situation.

By simply noticing and speaking up about unwanted and unacceptable workplace behaviour, even if it’s happening to someone else, you can help to change it. By having a zero tolerance attitude to bullying and by embracing your capacity to make a difference, you can help shatter the destructive silence that often grows in toxic workplaces.

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