Ombud’s Corner: Bystanders, you can have a role too

If you find yourself repeatedly witnessing a situation of inter personal conflict or tension between other colleagues, you have a choice: you can either turn a blind eye to it or you can try to help. In the latter case, you may wish to get another perspective or some guidance before taking steps.


Stefan, Paul and Lucas work together on a challenging project. Over time, Lucas has started to notice Paul’s verbally aggressive behaviour towards Stefan: he frequently criticises him in public, cuts him short at meetings when he is trying to make his point and is known to make derogatory remarks about him behind his back. Stefan does not seem to react but the tension between them is evident and Lucas feels increasingly uncomfortable in their company.

It is never easy to know whether or not to intervene in these delicate situations, and the ‘bystander effect’ - where people do nothing - tends to prevail in most workplace cultures. Bystanders hesitate to act because they fear embarrassment, a loss of relationship or even retaliation. In some cases, they may even doubt their own interpretation of the situation, in particular if nobody else seems to react, and fear that if they intervene, they may be perceived to be transgressing community norms. Yet if these situations are allowed to continue, they could risk deteriorating into examples of bullying behaviour where one person takes advantage of a perceived imbalance of power to intimidate, coerce or threaten another, undermining the latter’s self-confidence and causing them to feel humiliated and suffer demotivation and stress.

Lucas decides that he must do something and contacts the Ombud, who works with him to clarify various options for action. He then chooses a strategy by which he will try to help his colleagues to improve the situation. He talks individually to each of his colleagues, giving them both specific examples of the behaviours in question, as well as the corresponding reactions, both of which he attributes to an apparent power dynamic, and explains why he considers these exchanges to be inappropriate. He then offers them both his support in order to improve their relationship and also reminds them of the various Organizational resources that are available to help them to resolve their issues.

By pointing out "the elephant in the room” in this way, bystanders can take a stand on what they consider to be inappropriate behaviour and have a positive influence on their workplace. They can help to put a stop to rude or abusive behaviour, off-colour jokes, offensive stereotyping, public criticism, gossip and a myriad of other micro-inequities by simply not allowing this to continue in their presence. If they feel a lack of competence or uncertainty about what to do, they should not hesitate to talk the matter through with the Ombud, in all confidentiality, in order to work out for themselves the most constructive course of action.

By holding up a mirror to their colleagues, bystanders can effectively encourage them to acknowledge the negative impact of their behaviour and to bring about a change in their environment gradually. By holding up a mirror to themselves, they can recognise their own responsibility in choosing whether to keep silent or take appropriate action.

This is just one of the many ways we can all work together to keep our Code of Conduct alive!

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All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill