Confronting the Scourge of Bullying in the Workplace and Beyond

Is lack of empathy or fear to blame for the silence?

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in Bullying, Human Resources on November 14th, 2012

A study presented by University of Michigan researchers at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science revealed that US college students who entered university after 2000 had empathy levels that were 40 per cent lower than previous groups of students.

The Millennial generation (sometimes also referred to as the “Me” generation) has often been cited for increased narcissism and self-focus. Many reasons have been put forth to explain why this change might be occurring, but regardless of the all the possible reasons, we can see the tragic outcomes when we consider the case of young Amanda Todd, a 15 year old Canadian girl, and other young people like her who commit suicide in the face of relentless cyber and real time bullying.

Why Stand By?

Cyber bullying as well as various other bullying activities that take place in a real, physical space give rise to the question: What stops others from stepping in and calling a halt to this type of behavior?

Of course, the obvious answer is “fear” – fear that we might be the next target, perhaps; that we too might be picked on and ridiculed.

But that’s not the only reason. The empathy decline research suggests that the young especially may be experiencing an empathy deficit where witnesses do not even consider how much the victim may be suffering.

This, I would suggest, is far more worrisome than refusing to act because of fear for one’s own safety.

Monster Generation

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Are we raising a generation of monsters? Are we raising a generation of children who will send us off on our own ice pack as soon as we appear to be unable to contribute satisfactorily to their comfort? Are we creating a society where it’s “Me, first, Jack and to heck with the rest of you”?

I don’t want to be alarmist about this (well, maybe I do) but it seems to me that more and more frequently we are seeing people of all ages who show little or no regard for the wishes of others. It’s an attitude characterized by sentiments such as:

  • “Am I playing the stereo too loud? Tough! Get ear plugs.”
  • “Don’t like my driving? Take the bus.”
  • “Pick up my lunch garbage from the table when I am finished? Why? They have people they pay to do that job.”

All the little inconsiderate moments that we experience when we find ourselves as an anonymous being, often in a large or strange city, are prime examples of the decline of empathy we are experiencing in the Western world.

Too often this lack of regard for the feelings of others, or for their situations, leads to cases where literally life depends on the ability of others to step up and stop bullying or harassment.

Silence of Our Friends

Have you ever been a witness to bullying behavior at work that you did nothing about? What stopped you from stepping forward and helping to change the behaviour? Did you feel it was not your role or your place? Were you afraid of possible retaliation? Did you discount the possible suffering of the victim because you thought that all she had to do was just “grow a spine and not be so sensitive”?

Any of, and all of these may have come into play. The people who saw and participated, albeit silently, in the bullying of Amada Todd were co-conspirators just as we all are when we are silent in the face of abuse.

It’s useful, perhaps, to remember the words of Martin Luther King when he said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.