Why People Are Bullied at Work

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Every day, employees are abused and bullied at work. The issue of workplace bullying affects nearly one-third of all employees at some point during their careers, or 48.6 million Americans every year, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. A 2015 research review of studies in seven European countries and Australia found a workplace bullying rate of about 11%. Other studies suggests Asian countries have a higher rate.

Workplace bullying can have serious consequences, including increased distress, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Understanding the causes of workplace bullying is an important step toward reducing and eliminating this behavior.

Skilled Workers Are Often Bullied

You may be bullied at work because you receive a lot of positive attention for your work. Maybe you are intelligent, determined, creative, and regularly contribute new and innovative ideas. Or maybe you go the extra mile and gain recognition for your hard work. Maybe you even move through projects quickly while others are struggling. All these things attract the attention of workplace bullies.

Workplace bullies target those that have talent because they either feel inferior or they worry that their work is being overshadowed by the other employee's work and abilities. Bullying bosses, in particular, may target skilled workers and either steal the credit or undermine the target's work.

Well-Liked Employees Are Often Bullied

It is a myth that all victims of bullying are loners and outcasts with no friends or social connections. Often, it is the popular and well-liked workers that are most vulnerable to workplace bullying. If this describes you, bullies believe you pose a threat to their own popularity and social status at work.

Some bullies form cliques and target others who threaten their status or social standing. If you are well-liked at work, this could be the reason behind the attacks and jabs at you from the office bully.

Good People Are Bullied at Work

If you would describe yourself as caring, social and collaborative, this may be the reason that you are being bullied at work. To a workplace bully, these characteristics drain the power they have. Team-building is the antithesis of what a bully wants. Bullies want to be in control and to call all the shots. So, you may be targeted by bullies because you are a team player.

This does not mean you should change your behavior. It simply gives you some insight into why you are being targeted. You also may be targeted for being ethical and honest. For instance, whistleblowers who expose fraudulent practices are frequently bullied by others at work to keep quiet.

Non-Confrontational People Are Bullied

If you are introverted, anxious, or submissive, you are more likely to be bullied at work than those who are extroverted and assertive.

Research shows that if adults work to build assertiveness skills and social support, they might diminish the likelihood that they will be targeted by workplace bullies.

There is also some evidence that depression and other stress-related conditions might attract the attention of bullies. If you are living with any of these conditions, it is important to get treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Depression, anxiety, and stress-related conditions should never be left untreated. And bullying can exacerbate your symptoms.

Bullying Is Motivated By Prejudice

Some employees may be targeted because of gender, age, race, sexual preference, or religion. You also may be bullied if you have a disability or a medical condition. Whatever the reason, workplace bullies single out and target people who are different from them in some way. They also tend to discriminate against others.

If you are being bullied for any of these reasons, you may have some legal recourse. Consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to see if you can file a complaint.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

Bullying may be subtle or it may be overt. Workplace bullies may target their co-workers (peers, direct reports, even supervisors) with behaviors including:

  • Isolation: Freezing the target out of both work-related and social events and conversations
  • Aggression: Displaying anger toward a target (may be verbal or nonverbal)
  • Intrusion: Invading the target's personal space or desk/work area
  • Minimization: Dismissing the target's suggestions, ideas, or questions
  • Intimidation: Threatening or otherwise scaring the target
  • Criticism: Giving unwarranted or unconstructive feedback; belittling or embarrassing the target
  • Gossip: Discussing the target behind their back; spreading rumors or untruths


Bullying Focuses on Appearance

Unfortunately, adults often bully others for the same reasons kids target others in elementary school. Whether you are short or tall, heavy or thin, have a large chest or no chest at all, workplace bullies will find a way to exploit your appearance. Almost any type of physical characteristic that is different or unique can attract the attention of bullies. This includes wearing glasses, having a large nose, having ears that protrude, and even having adult acne. 

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing bullying at work, take steps to report it. You also should do what you can to confront the bully; research shows that both seeking help and assertiveness can improve psychological wellbeing. It is never a good idea to let workplace bullying continue without addressing it in some way. Even if you do not report the bullying, take steps to take care of yourself.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should you do if you are being bullied at work?

    If you are being bullied at work, start by telling someone you trust: A friend, family member, colleague or supervisor, counselor, union rep, or human resources staffer. They can offer support and help you consider your next steps, including whether and how to confront the bully and how you can manage the stress associated with the experience. It's also important to keep records of what is happening.

  • How do you stop being bullied at work?

    It depends a lot on the situation, but in some instances you can push back against being bullied at work. Being assertive (telling the bully to stop what they are doing) and seeking help (such as by reporting the bullying) can both help you feel better, even if they do not fully stop the bullying.

  • What are your rights if you are bullied at work?

    If you are bullied at work based on your gender, age, race, sexual preference, religion, disability or medical condition, you may be able to make a complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You may also have rights as a member of a union.

  • How can you help someone who is being bullied at work?

    You can help someone who is being bullied at work by being a supportive friend. If you feel safe doing so, you could intervene on behalf of the target, for example by acknowledging their ideas during a meeting when they are being ignored or by refusing to participate in gossip about them. You could also offer to accompany the target to a meeting with human resources to discuss the bullying.

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7 Sources
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