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7 Surprising Reasons Why Workplace Bullies Pick Their Targets

Updated on February 10, 2017
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Having been a boss and an employee, I like to study what makes one workplace busy and happy and what makes another chaotic and miserable.

I'm ashamed to say that I was once one of those callous folks who scoff at the anti-bullying campaigns in our nation's schools. I thought: Getting picked on is a rite of passage. Toughen up and get over it. Stop wasting time and money on these anti-bullying programs and get back to teaching and learning.

But I didn't know what I was talking about and how truly devastating bullying is. While occasionally teased and called names as a child, I never experienced anything that rose to that level. That is until I was 49-years-old and working as a teacher at a preschool of all places!

From that painful experience, I learned just how awful bullying is and that I never wanted to become a victim of it again. It also made me curious about why certain folks get targeted. What I discovered made me feel a lot better about myself.

Victims of Bullying Are Often the Go-To People at Work

Research shows workplace victims are not weak, timid, and spineless as we're led to believe. They're often highly skilled, ethical, honest, and well-liked. Here are 7 common characteristics of a bullying victim at work:

1. They're Independent.

The Workplace Bullying Institute (yes, there really is such a place) interviewed thousands of people who got bullied on the job and their findings were not what you'd expect. Our stereotypical vision of a victim is someone who's a weakling, a loner, and an outcast – someone who doesn't stand up for herself. Their research, however, shows the opposite. The bully actually picks on someone who acts independently and refuses to kowtow – someone who's typically a veteran worker, highly skilled, and well-liked.

So why would a bully choose such a capable victim? Consciously or unconsciously, the bully perceives this person as a threat. This was certainly true in my situation. My bully was the newcomer who nobody liked while I was the “go-to” person who others came to for advice. My bully prided herself on having a master's degree, but I, too, had one and this infuriated her. Her ego got bruised. She thought if she got me under her thumb others would fall in line and respect her.

Whistleblowers face a lot of harassment and hostility for doing the right thing.  Whistleblowers and others with integrity are often victims of bullying.
Whistleblowers face a lot of harassment and hostility for doing the right thing. Whistleblowers and others with integrity are often victims of bullying. | Source

2. They Have Integrity.

Victims of bullying are typically honest, ethical, and pro-social. They see their jobs as more than a means to earn a paycheck. They're often in positions that involve helping others such as teachers, nurses, and social workers. Whistle-blowers who report abuses in the workplace get targeted because they're seen as traitors.

This was my situation. I had to report my bully to her supervisor because she wasn't providing the required services for a student in my class with Down's Syndrome. Once she suspected that I had reported her, she made my life a living hell. Her energies got directed on revenge and not on helping this boy.

3. They're Nice.

According to Psychology Today, victims of bullying are typically nice. They're the ones who try to get along with everyone at work -- seeking cooperation and consensus, not competition. Their bullies see their niceness as a sign of weakness and go in for the kill. These victims, sweet and unsuspecting, are totally caught off guard by the attacks and are left wondering: Why me?

This sounds all too familiar to me as I often got described by others at work as “nice” and sometimes even “too nice.” My bullying experience showed me that this adjective is not always used as a compliment and is often a euphemism for “chump,” “sap,” and “sucker.” While most of us enjoy the company of nice people, a bully sees them as easy prey.

4. They're Introverts.

Many victims of workplace bullying are introverts. These folks are typically excellent listeners and deep thinkers who focus on their assignments and don't get caught up in office politics. Because of their thoughtfulness, they don't react to bullying swiftly and often let it go on too long. Their slow response gives the bully a green light to continue and even escalate. Introverts are not only more likely to get bullied than extroverts, they're less likely to report it or ask for help.

This was true in my circumstance. My response to the bullying was very measured. I never lost my cool, which seemed to spur my bully to do more. I waited too long to report her misconduct and downplayed how abusive it truly was.

5. They're Younger or Older.

According to research by, younger and older employees are more likely to get targeted. 29% of those 24 years and younger reported getting bullied. The same percentage got reported by those 55 and older. Experts suggest both age groups are vulnerable, the younger people because of their inexperience and the older people because of society's obsession with youth. Both younger and older workers worry more about losing their jobs, not getting promoted, not getting raises, and not getting decent performance reports.

I was almost 50 when my bullying began, and age was certainly a factor. My bully started demanding that I do physical tasks that were never required of me in the past. One of these involved carrying a 5-year-old child with Down's Syndrome from place to place.

6. They're Physically Different.

Those who look different in some marked way often become targets. Their physical differences might include skin color, hair color (redheads are frequent victims), a limp, a harelip and, of course, being under or overweight. Because they want to feel superior and in control, bullies pick on those they perceive as "less than" the standard ideal of beauty.

No doubt my bully chose me because I was fat. The stress of dealing with her made me eat, and I put on more weight. I was feeling less confidant and less capable. Then my mind started playing tricks on me and I wondered: Perhaps, I deserve this treatment. Perhaps, I'm not a good teacher. Once I got to this point it took a long time before I was back to believing I was indeed a terrific teacher and a worthy person.

Whether at school or in the workplace, people with red hair are often targets.  Bullies target those who look different.
Whether at school or in the workplace, people with red hair are often targets. Bullies target those who look different. | Source

7. They're Good People.

Victims of bullying should find comfort in knowing that they're good people who became targets because of their goodness. They didn't do anything wrong. In fact, they did many things right and that's why the bullies got jealous of them.

When you're a victim, people give a lot of advice: keep a log of all the bullying behavior, talk to Human Resources, contact a lawyer. But often the best solution is simply to walk away from the situation. That's what I did and I have no regrets. As soon as I quit my job, the stress faded away, the pounds came off, and my whole outlook on life got better. I wanted to wake up in the mornings, start the day, and have happy times. It wasn't until I left that I fully realized what a toll the bullying experience had taken on me – both physically and emotionally.

The Profile of a Bullying Victim at Work Is Far Different From That at School

Workplace bullying is a huge problem, leaving its victims stressed, anxious, and even physically ill.
Workplace bullying is a huge problem, leaving its victims stressed, anxious, and even physically ill. | Source

This Book Will Empower You to Handle a Workplace Bully

Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge
Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge

While I chose to walk away from my job, not everybody has that option. They need effective strategies to deal with a bully. This book provides just that. It's full of entertaining stories and useful tips. After reading it, you'll feel like a new person, ready to take on the challenge of dealing with your tormentor.


© 2017 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 6 months ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks for the kind words, Geri. I knew nothing about workplace bullying until it happened to me. Then I needed to find out why it happened to me. Fortunately, what I discovered brought me peace of mind.

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 6 months ago

      This is an excellent, well-researched article, and consistent with what I have both witnessed and experienced in the workplace.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 7 months ago from Bend, OR

      Denise, I'm sorry that happened to you. You're one tough cookie to have lasted five years. I only made it 7 months! I'm so glad this issue is getting more attention. Not every workplace has a Human Resources Department so many of us take it on alone. There isn't a day that goes by (and this happened to me 3 years ago) that I'm not grateful to be free of it. It makes me so sorry for kids who are bullied at school.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 7 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Like you, I was an older than average employee. Many of the qualities listed here describe me. I let the bullying go on for five years, always telling myself that I couldn't find anything better than what I had. The straw that finally broke the camel's back was a bullying incident accompanied by a written document that made my position impossible to fulfill. I refused to sign it and walked away. I haven't looked back! Thanks for addressing this important issue!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 7 months ago from Bend, OR

      I'm glad you took on the bullies when you taught, Bill. I see too many teachers turn a blind eye to it at my son's middle school. I was totally caught off-guard when it happened to me for the first time while I was teaching preschool. The public school system wants more power over preschools, even private ones, and that was a big factor.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I spent my childhood as the target of bullies at school. I vowed to never ignore it as an adult when I see it, and I was especially nasty with bullies when I taught school. Great topic....and suggestions.