Who Is a Workplace Bully's Target?

Defend yourself against workplace bullies

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While every workplace bully target is different, the targets often share many traits. The commonalities include but are not limited to appearance and conduct.

An estimated 60.3 million Americans have experienced workplace bullying, according to a 2017 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Bullying isn't confined to the schoolyard. It can occur between a boss and subordinate or between co-workers. It's marked by ongoing harassment and ridicule, often verbal but sometimes physical.

They Make the Bully Feel Insecure

Bullies target people who pose a threat to them in the workplace. A bully's target is often smart, competent, and self-assured. In fact, the most veteran and skilled person in the workgroup is often a target. A bully might feel that her skilled competence throws a glaring spotlight on his own inadequacies, compelling him to bring her down a notch, perhaps even by sabotaging her work or spreading lies about her.

Workplace bullies often target employees who are liked by their supervisors and praised for their performances. Bullies want to elevate their own status within the organization by pushing others down.

Competence translates to competition for a bully. He'll target these capable workers out of jealousy or put them down to make himself look better, all the while making the target appear less valuable to the organization. Bullies often have poor coping skills and tackle their insecurities by manipulating others to raise their own perceived self-importance.

Those Who Seem Vulnerable

Consciously or unconsciously, bullies thrive on immediate power. They seek out people who are vulnerable and who they feel are unlikely to retaliate, confront, or report them. Bullies target employees who are nonconfrontational, passive, submissive, meek, or quiet. They might be on the fringes of or excluded from workplace cliques.

Bullies also tend to zero in on those who are new to the workplace, individuals who have not yet established supportive relationships with co-workers. Bullies may target inexperienced, older, or handicapped employees as well, including those struggling with depression or stress and anxiety disorders. Bullies are often vulnerable themselves, so bullying helps them conceal their own insecurities and create the appearance that they're in control.

Caring, Social, and Collaborative Co-Workers

Workplace bullies target those for whom collaboration, compromise, team building, and consensus-seeking are second nature. While these character traits are important elements of a healthy work team, they ironically can exacerbate bullying.

Employees with a strong support network within the workplace, who share solid friendships and associations with others, are often targeted because the bully is excluded from these inner circles. She might act out of resentment and frustration.

Co-workers who are kind and tend to avoid conflict might be targeted because they appear weak and unwilling to fight back.

Fair, Honest, and Ethical Co-Workers

Bullies often focus on employees who are fair, honest, and ethical or those who have strong morals and integrity. This is especially the case when the bully doesn't possess these traits himself or if his target's values conflict with his own. Whistleblowers who expose fraudulent or unethical practices are often bully targets.

Men vs. Women

Women are bullied more frequently than men. In fact, the same survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 70 percent of bullies were men and 65 percent of their targets were women. The survey also revealed that women bullies target women 67 percent of the time.

Racial Minorities

Research findings from the Workplace Bullying Institute survey show that race can have an effect on the experience of workplace bullying. Hispanics report the highest rates of workplace bullying at 26 percent. African-Americans are the second highest at 21 percent, and are Asians experience the least: 7 percent.

Issues of Appearance

You might find that you're a target if you look different or if you possess some physical trait that markedly separates you from others. A victim of bullying might be very tall or very short. He might have a weight problem, a scar, or some facial feature that stands out. These victims are often targeted for no other reason than their appearance opens the door for teasing, taunting, and ridicule.

How to Defend Yourself

Some issues that might make you a target are easier to overcome than others. You might not be able to change your appearance or your ethnicity, but if you're being targeted because you're meek, quiet, or different, consider speaking up.

Tell the bully—authoritatively—to stop what he's saying or doing. Let him know that you're not going to take it anymore. If he interrupts you in meetings, say, "I'm sorry. I wasn't finished yet." If you're close with one or more of your co-workers, ask them to chime in and lend their support in telling the bully that his behavior won't be tolerated.

It might not elicit an immediate response, but it should at least startle the bully and give him some food for thought. And it could potentially ease the situation over time.

You can consider going to a supervisor with the problem, but this doesn't always help, at least if you can't provide substantiated proof. Keep a log of witnesses to the bully's behavior, including exactly what happened and the dates and times when the bullying occurred. But keep in mind that the supervisor might actually support the bully, or the bully might be so valuable to the company that the supervisor doesn't want to rock the boat by addressing the problem.

You probably can't change a bully, but you can change the way you react to bullies and their behavior.