Who Is a Workplace Bully's Target?

Defend yourself against workplace bullying

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Bullying isn't confined to the schoolyard. It can occur between a boss and a subordinate, or between co-workers. It's marked by ongoing harassment and ridicule, often verbal but sometimes physical.

An estimated 60.3 million Americans have experienced workplace bullying, according to a 2017 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, one of the most recent comprehensive research efforts available.

The targets of workplace bullies often share a good many traits, including appearance and conduct.

They Make the Bully Feel Insecure

Bullies tend to target people who pose a threat to them. They're often smart, competent, and self-assured. In fact, the most veteran and skilled person in the workgroup is often a bully's target. Bullies often go after employees who are liked by their supervisors and praised for their performances.

Competence translates to competition. Bullies will target these capable workers to make them appear less valuable to the organization.

Bullies might feel that their targets' skilled competence throws a glaring spotlight on their own inadequacies, compelling them to bring the individual down a notch, perhaps even by sabotaging their work or spreading lies. Bullies want to elevate their own status within the organization by pushing others down.

Bullies often have poor coping skills and tackle their insecurities by manipulating others to raise their own perceived self-importance.

Those Who Seem Vulnerable

Bullies thrive on immediate power. They zero in on others who are vulnerable and who they feel are unlikely to retaliate, confront, or report them. These victims tend to be nonconfrontational, passive, submissive, meek, or quiet. They might be on the fringes of or excluded from workplace cliques.

Bullies also tend to target those who are new to the workplace for this reason—individuals who have not yet established supportive relationships with co-workers.

Bullies might target inexperienced or handicapped employees as well, including those struggling with depression, stress, or anxiety disorders. They're often vulnerable themselves, so bullying helps them conceal their own insecurities and create the appearance that they're in control.

Caring, Social, and Collaborative Coworkers

Workplace bullies target those for whom collaboration, compromise, and team building are second nature. These character traits are important elements of a healthy work team, but they can also bring about bullying.

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

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

Fair, Honest, and Ethical Coworkers

Bullies often focus on employees who have strong morals and integrity. This is especially the case when the bullies don't possess these traits themselves, or when their victims' values conflict with their own.

Whistleblowers who expose fraudulent or unethical practices are often bully targets.

Men vs. Women

Women are bullied more frequently than men. The Workplace Bullying Institute survey found that 70% of bullies were men, and that 65% of their targets were women.

The survey also revealed that women bullies target women 67% of the time.

Racial Minorities

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

Physical Traits and Age

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, might have a weight problem, a scar, or some facial feature that stands out.

Age can factor in as well. Employees who are markedly younger or older both report a high level of bullying. Younger people, particularly those under 24, can seem vulnerable, while older individuals are often mocked and spotlighted simply because of their age—and yes, that Baby Boomer work ethic.

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 consider speaking up if you're being targeted because you're meek, quiet, or different.

Tell the bully—authoritatively—to stop. Let the bully know that you're not going to take it anymore. Say, "I'm sorry. I wasn't finished yet," if you're interrupted in meetings. Ask your coworkers to chime in and lend their support in telling the bully that this type of behavior won't be tolerated.

Responding assertively might not elicit an immediate response, but it might at least startle the bully and provide some food for thought. It could potentially ease the situation over time.

Going to a Supervisor

You can consider going to a supervisor with the problem, but this doesn't always help 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.

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.