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Colleagues unlikely to intervene in online workplace bullying

Work colleagues are less likely to intervene in workplace bullying if it takes place online, research from Loughborough University has found.

The study by Dr Iain Coyne from Loughborough’s School of Business and Economics, and colleagues* is being presented today (Friday 6 January) at the British Psychological Society’s Division Occupational Psychology annual conference in Liverpool.

Dr Coyne, a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, said: “Bystanders are people who witness bullying but are not involved directly. These individuals can discourage or escalate bullying by speaking up on the victim’s behalf, or supporting the bully either actively or passively.

“So if bystanders do not intervene they can be seen as providing passive support to the perpetrator to continue with their actions. If their support can reduce bullying then understanding bystander behaviour online and developing approaches to enhance positive support online is a key intervention.”

A total of 110 participants (62 per cent female; 37 per cent male) received example scenarios of four different types of workplace bullying (personal vs work-related; offline vs online). The examples were created from questionnaires and other research on workplace bullying. The scenarios included a clear indication that each negative act was persistent. In all cases the act was perpetrated by a supervisor on a subordinate.

Analysis of the results showed that work colleagues were significantly more likely to intervene in offline than online scenarios and when the bullying was personal than work-related. Interestingly, analysis also showed that there was an increase in support for the supervisor’s work-related bullying when the behaviour was online.

Dr Iain Coyne concluded: “Our study illustrates that online forms of abuse can change the behaviour of bystanders – even to the point that they are more likely to agree with the actions of a perpetrator.

“There are many possible reasons for bystanders to be cautious about getting involved. For example they may be fearful of retaliation by defending the victim. So interventions such as cyber-mentoring, anonymous reporting functions and acceptable use protocols will help encourage bystander empathy as well as create a safe environment for them to intervene.”

In addition to being an active researcher, Dr Coyne is also programme director for the School's Work Psychology MSc and Business Psychology MSc.

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