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7 Surprising Reasons Why a Workplace Bully Might Target You

Contrary to popular belief, bullies don't target those who are weak and mousy.

Contrary to popular belief, bullies don't target those who are weak and mousy.

Bullies Target Those Who Threaten Them

Research contradicts the stereotype of the bullying victim at work as someone who's weak, timid, and spineless. In fact, they tend to be quite the opposite: highly skilled, ethical, honest, and well-liked. Seven other common characteristics that often define them include the following.

1. They're independent.

2. They have integrity.

3. They're nice.

4. They're introverts.

5. They're younger or older.

6. They're physically different.

7. They're good people.

An explanation on why these characteristics attract the attention of workplace bullies is found below.

Could You Be the Target of a Workplace Bully?

  • Do you believe bullying at work happens to the weakest and most vulnerable?
  • Do you think it happens to those who are unpopular and socially isolated from co-workers?
  • Do you think it won't happen to you because you're strong, independent-minded, and well-respected?

If you're nodding in agreement, you've bought into the same false notions that many of us have about workplace bullies and those they target. Research shows that our image of the weak and mousy bullying victim is highly inaccurate. In fact, most are strong, independent, highly ethical, and well-liked by their co-workers.

For the one in four of us who says we've been bullied at work, this evidence can make us feel much better. We can now stop blaming ourselves, wondering what we did wrong. We can start putting the responsibility squarely on the perpetrators and let ourselves off the hook.

A First-Time Bullying Victim at 49

I'm ashamed to say that I was once one of those callous folks who scoffed 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."

I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't appreciate how truly devastating bullying is. While occasionally teased and called names as a child, I never experienced anything that rose to the level of bullying. 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.

7 Common Characteristics of a Bullying Victim in the Workplace

Here are the usual characteristics of a bullying victim.

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 themselves. 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.

2. They Have Integrity

Victims of bullying at work 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 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.

Whistleblowers face harassment and hostility for doing the right thing.

Whistleblowers face harassment and hostility for doing the right thing.

3. They're Nice

According to Psychology Today, victims of bullying at work are typically nice. They're the ones who try to get along with everyone—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 as I often got described by co-workers 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. Twenty-nine percent 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 syndrome from place to place.

Worried about losing their jobs, older and younger workers are more vulnerable to bullying.

Worried about losing their jobs, older and younger workers are more vulnerable to bullying.

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 educator and a worthy person.

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.

One-fourth of employees today are affected by workplace bullying. To help them, Dr. Gary Namie and Dr. Ruth Namie have written the quintessential book on the topic entitled: Bullyproof Yourself at Work: Personal Strategies to Recognize and Stop the Hurt from Harassment. I highly recommend it to anyone who needs practical advice for putting an end to such abuse. I found it to be an invaluable resource when I started a new job and wanted to avoid being a target again.

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.

In this compelling video, Dr. Gary Namie describes the four main types of bullies at work.

What do you think?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on September 15, 2019:

Thanks for your question, John. Research shows that bully-prone workplaces include those where employees want to do good (e.g. medicine, education, social work). These kindhearted workers are so preoccupied with helping others that they're often oblivious to office politics. Therefore, they're easy targets for co-workers and supervisors who want to get ahead at all cost, make a name for themselves, or seize an opportunity to feel superior. Busy workplaces (e.g. restaurants, hospitals) have more bullying as well because of the heightened stress levels. Bullying is also more prevalent in work environments where there's a considerable imbalance of power (think hospitals once again and the dynamic between doctors, residents, interns, and orderlies).

John Dove on September 14, 2019:

Your thoughtful article on bullying in the workplace caused me to think again about who are the victims of bullying. Do you think there are certain types of workplaces where bullying happens more often?

McKenna Meyers (author) on April 09, 2019:

Debra, I'm so sorry this is happening to you. Now that you've reported it to the boss, it's time to keep a log of the harassment. Be as specific as possible with dates, times, and what was said. Be professional and unemotional about it. Then, when you have enough evidence, present it to human resources or a lawyer. Good luck!

Debra on April 09, 2019:

I a nurse I put a complete in on my boss for something she did and the big boss called me to the office and said I was being a bich and ask me why I hate my boss then said we can get you a tranfur to a another place so now all the staff are doing things that make me look bad I tell the bosses about the bullying only to told that I must hate my job and they keep saying that they cut my hours or transfer me I cried all day and went to the doctor for help now I home so sad I didn't know what to do now as I need the job to live

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 01, 2018:

Bree, I'm sorry this is happening to you. When I was bullied at work, I was caught off guard because nothing like that had ever happened to me. It messed with my head for several years and made me doubt myself until I did the research for this article. You're a lot more aware than I was, and I hope it serves you well. Be sure to document the bullying behavior with dates, times, and details in case you want to bring it to Human Resources. Bullying in the workplace is a much bigger problem than we realize because most of us don't report it and simply walk away. I admire your determination to stay. Best to you!

Bree on November 30, 2018:

I have always been a bullying target, and constantly provoked. The only thing I don't agree with is the body stuff. I am bullied for not only every other reason, but because I stand out as being different. The ones that bully me are women in their 40's, unhappy marriages, uneducated, and often short and overweight.

I am in my 20's, in a normal BMI range, and conventionally beautiful and intelligent, and earn high marks in every regard despite an abusive life. I am very kind to everyone. I wish to lift everyone up. But for some reason, I often get bullied and my reputation smeared by those low on the totem pole, not attractive, not particularly valuable to the organisation. Maybe that's their only way to have power?

They don't care about the patients. That's all I care about and they can give a damn. The irony is I would be their best friend and lift them up if they gave me a chance, but they choose to constantly reject it, gossip, and smear my reputation with a goal of me quitting.

I'm not quitting.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2018:

Thanks for your comments, Finn. I was so confused by what happened to me at work. When I realized I had been bullied, I finally had relief and wrote this article, wanting to help others. I hope you have peace and fulfillment with your new job.

Finn from Barstow on November 14, 2018:

Some interesting observations and possibly quite true overall. I personally hate that word "target" because I don't know what it means. I was ganged up on in a work environment previously and was told I was the instigator.

It was all retaliation because of some issues I had "complained" about.

But overall I think it's best just to move on. You don't want to get into a big litigation or have anything to explain later on to other employers

I think nicer people and people who succeed or are comfortable or confident definitely get bullied. That goes without saying.

wish I would have come across this earlier.

McKenna Meyers (author) on October 05, 2018:

Thanks, Sasha. You're so right about gaining weight when you're a target of bullying. That certainly happened to me. I'm intrigued by the cutting of attachment cords. I started reading about it online. I think anything that helps us move forward after a devastating bullying experience is extremely valuable. Thanks for your comments!

sasha on October 05, 2018:

Sorry to hear what you are going through..toxic environments are an easy way to gain weight, been there, done that... I don't know what your faith is or if you believe in angels or not, i highly recommend to look into cutting attachment cords (Angel Michael or Mother Mary) you can google this too look it up, to cut cords with your co-worker...also shifting body language helps a lot, bullies are often very primal from my own experience...they feel your energy... Hope things improve!

McKenna Meyers (author) on April 21, 2018:

Melissa, I'm so sorry you're going through this. I wish I could give you a pill to make it better, but I know it takes time and deliberate steps to move forward. If I could do it over, I would have seen a therapist or life coach after I left my job. Like you I felt alone, betrayed, and drained. It took me three years to feel better so I wish I had done something to speed up that process.

Now, looking back, I'm glad it happened. I had gained a good 40 pounds during the last couple years at that job because it was such a toxic work environment. Now I've lost that weight. I exercise every day and appreciate life so much more. I'm lighter in spirit and pounds!

I don't know what you should do about the EEOC complaint, but you would probably feel better if you take some control of the situation. Feel powerlessness really brings us down. I wish you the best as you move forward, Melissa, and hope you feel better soon. You're certainly not alone in what happened to you, and I'm glad you're reaching out to others who've experienced what you did.

Melissa Stamps on April 20, 2018:

Thank you so much for you empowering words. I had to finally resign after 12 years due the abusive tactics and acts of discrimination. I had been with the dept. of F &A since 10/2010, but after the dept. director and personnel manager retired, my boss moved into the Personnel Mangers position and my other boss moved into the vacated Director of Finance position and I accepted a promotion as the Assistant Personnel Manager. That first day everything changed, I was ignored, wasn’t allowed to participate in meetings and decisions and my Performance Evaluation scores began to decline each year. Soon things began to get progressively worse. Even my replacement (I was supposed to be her supervisor) was a part of the ‘gang’. To make a long story short because of my mental heath issues and detonating health and the fact I just couldn’t take it any more I resigned this past March 2018 after a retaliatory write up. I currently have no sense of self-worth, my confidence is shot, I’m isolated and tired. Lastly, I have also been wrestling with the decision to file an EEOC Complaint. Not out of revenge, but to put the whole agency (it’s small) on notice, because the current culture is a hotbed for this type of Elitist behavior. I had seeing how sad my fellow employees have become. What’s stopping me is the need to move on, but can I? if you know of any other encouraging books or articles please post them. Thank you and God Bless.

McKenna Meyers (author) on January 24, 2017:

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.

Geri McClymont on January 24, 2017:

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

McKenna Meyers (author) on January 17, 2017:

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 from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 17, 2017:

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!

McKenna Meyers (author) on January 16, 2017:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 16, 2017:

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.