Moral issues of bystander behaviour in workplace bullying

Student thesis: Phd


Workplace bullying is a phenomenon with many negative individual and organisational consequences. It was originally conceptualised as a social process whereby third parties eventually become involved as bullying progresses. However, most research has tended to focus on the bully-victim dyad with little attention paid towards these third parties, known as bystanders. Most research assumes that bystanders almost always remain passive and could become ‘victims by proxy.’ In contrast, recent work suggests that they are capable of engaging in active or passive behaviours that are either constructive or destructive. However, researchers are unsure of how and why workplace bullying bystanders behave, particularly in relation to destructive behaviours. Further, as most scales are not theoretically driven and cannot capture a variety of responses, researchers are limited in how to quantitatively measure bystander behaviour at work. This thesis has four aims: (1) to explore different bystander responses to workplace bullying; (2) to develop a theoretical framework explaining how bystanders can enact and maintain behaviours (by integrating moral disengagement and sensemaking theories); (3) to investigate whether organisational and individual factors predispose bystanders to engage in certain responses and in moral disengagement; (4) to develop a validated measure specifically for workplace bullying bystanders. To meet its aims the thesis utilises sequential mixed methodology consisting of three studies. Data collection took place in the UK with working adults. Study 1 used qualitative focus groups (five groups, n = 29) and findings informed item generation for scale development. Study 2 and 3 both used quantitative survey methodology. Study 2 (n = 191) tested the initial scale on a pilot population and refined it to a final form. Study 3 (n = 257) tested the relationship between the organisational and individual factors on bystander behaviour and moral disengagement Findings from the three studies suggest that bystanders are able to enact various responses to workplace bullying and use moral disengagement to rationalise destructive behaviours. Destructive bystander behaviours mediated the relationship between individual factors (locus of control and moral relativism) and moral disengagement. This research is significant for several reasons. First, findings support the growing literature that bystanders can influence the continuation and progression of bullying through different responses. Second, this study is one of the first to use moral disengagement in socially unethical behaviours in the workplace, like bullying. Qualitative findings showed that different moral disengagement mechanisms can be used together to strengthen rationalisations. Third, this study confirms that moral disengagement can also be operationalised as an outcome of unethical behaviour, as many existing studies treats it as an antecedent. In terms of practice, findings from this study can feed into supplementary bystander training by creating awareness on the role bystanders can play in bullying and on the dangers of moral disengagement.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHelge Hoel (Supervisor) & Karen Niven (Supervisor)


  • ethical decision making
  • moral disengagement
  • sensemaking
  • workplace bullying
  • bystander

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