Who Is a Workplace Bully's Target?

upset woman at computer
••• JGI/Jamie Grill Blend Images/Getty Images

An estimated 54 million Americans have been bullied at some point their career. Bullying can occur between a boss and subordinate or between co-workers.

What makes some people more vulnerable to bullying than others? How does a bully choose his targets? Below are some characteristics and personality traits that are common to workplace bully targets.

Profile of a Workplace Bully Target

While every workplace bully target is different, targets often share many of the traits below. Bully targets are:

Those Who Make The Bully Feel Insecure: Bullies target people who pose a threat to them in the workplace. Often the bully target is smart, competent, well-liked, and self-assured. In fact, targets are often the most veteran and skilled person in the workgroup. “Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the ‘go-to’ veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can't stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets,” the Workplace Bullying Institute notes.

For bullies, competence is competition. Bullies target these capable workers out of jealousy or to put the target down to make themselves look better while making the target appear less valuable to the organization.

Workplace bullies often target employees who excel at their jobs and are liked by their supervisors. Bullies seek to elevate their own status within the organization by pushing others down or sabotaging their work. 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. Bullies seek out people who are vulnerable and who are unlikely to retaliate, confront or report them. Bullies target employees who are:

  • Non-confrontational
  • Passive and submissive
  • Shy, meek or quiet
  • New to the workplace
  • Outside the workplace cliques
  • Loyal

In addition, bullies may target inexperienced, older, or handicapped employees. Bullies are often insecure and vulnerable themselves and bullying helps them conceal their own insecurities and create the appearance that they are in control.

Caring, Social and Collaborative Coworkers: Workplace bullies target those for whom meekness, collaboration, compromise, team building and consensus-seeking are second nature, and while such character traits are an important part of a healthy work team, those traits only exacerbate bullying. “The most easily exploited targets are people with personalities founded on a pro-social orientation – a desire to help, heal, teach, develop, nurture others,” the Workplace Bullying Institute states. Bullies view such traits as a drain on their power; they believe that loyalty, compromise, and collaboration give credit and power to others.

Fair, Honest and Ethical Coworkers: Bullies often target employees who are fair, honest and ethical or have strong morals and integrity, especially if the bully does not possess those traits or if the target’s values conflict with those of the bully. Whistleblowers who expose fraudulent or unethical practices are usually bully targets.

Women: Women are more frequently bullied than men. In fact, a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 62 percent of bullies were men and 58 percent of targets were women. The survey also revealed that the majority (68 percent) of bullying is same-gender harassment and that women bullies target women 80 percent of the time.

Racial Minorities: Research findings from a 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, African-Americans second highest and Asians the lowest.