Are You a Bully Magnet at Work?


These five factors determine whether you’re tempting prey for office bullies and abusive co-workers.

By  , 

A businessman yells at a coworker in an office.

A businessman yells at a coworker in an office.
You may find yourself targeted by a bully because you overlook deteriorating treatment until the situation becomes so nasty or personal that it’s difficult to handle professionally.

Workplace bullying is epidemic. In fact, 37 million U.S. workers face “abusive conduct” during the workday, according to a 2014 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute. Nearly 29 million others witness this abuse. To put this into tangible terms, the nearly 66 million workers who face or witness bullying equal the combined population of fifteen U.S. states.

Other reports show that three to four people out of every 10 have been bullied. If you’re the one encountering a bully in your workplace, you may be asking, “Can I please be in the other six?” Your answer lies in what leads bullies to target some individuals and not others. My research shows that five factors place you in a bully’s crosshairs. You can control four of these and impact the fifth.

1. You pass the test you need to fail. Consider this fictional example: The first time Jeff yelled an expletive at her, Sue asked “Bad day? I’ll come back later.” Jeff wasn’t done. “Let’s get this over with,” he snarled. But Sue had already exited his office. In contrast, Ellen stayed when Jeff launched into tirades, even when he shouted expletives at her.

Don’t pass the test you should fail. Bullies test to see if you’ll allow bad treatment. If you do, bullies escalate their abuse, and the situation can spiral out of control.

Never think you can ignore a bully. They don’t go away on their own and perceive avoidance as weakness. Those who don’t stand up to a bully’s initial attack signal that they’re easy prey, inadvertently encouraging continued bullying.


When Jeff sent Sue a furious follow-up email, she forwarded it to Jeff’s supervisor, her supervisor and the human resources officer. The next day, Sue met with a chastened Jeff.

2. You signal that you’re an easy target. Bullies weigh risks with benefits, zeroing in on individuals they consider easy prey. These people are often the nicest individuals in the workplace. Would you rather submit to bad treatment than engage in conflict? Do others know you won’t confront them if they tread on you? If so, you signal vulnerability. Bullies eat nice people alive.

Your best strategy? Don’t be easy or difficult, but simply stand up for yourself. If someone cuts you down, respond quickly and professionally. You can say, “You and I need to talk about that comment. I didn’t appreciate it.”

3. You ignore warning signs. You may find yourself targeted by a bully because you overlook deteriorating treatment until the situation becomes so nasty or personal that it’s difficult to handle professionally. Those who ignore red-flag behaviors send the wrong message to bullies and give them time to gain the upper hand.

Does a co-worker or supervisor insult or treat others poorly because he can get away with it? Do you work for or with someone hates having her authority questioned? Do you or others “walk on eggshells” not to trigger another’s wrath? Does a co-worker cut you down and then say, “Just kidding?” Are you and others treated with respect or does your co-worker or supervisor delight in making your life difficult?

If you land or work in a bully-prone environment, don’t wait for others to intervene. They may not notice the bully’s aggressive or manipulative nature, as bullies can present a charming facade to those they’re not targeting. Those who do witness the bullying may not consider it their fight or may run for cover. If you’re targeted, and handle yourself effectively, you defeat the bully and allow others to see the truth.

4. You have bad luck or have something the bully wants. Given the prevalence of bullies in the workplace, you may land a job that places you squarely in a bully’s crosshairs. A bully may also target you because you have something the bully wants. A bully may envy your reputation or relationship with your mutual supervisor. Your job may represent a promotional opportunity for the bully. If simple bad luck, your talents or job land you squarely in front of a bully, prepare for a covert or direct onslaught.

A bully launches pre-emptive attacks that leave you defensive, tongue-tied or disparaged in others’ minds. Whatever game the bully sets in motion, you can defeat it. If you don’t play the bully’s game and address the situation directly and with integrity, you witness a failed bullying attempt.

Bullies rarely attack those with allies or a power base, fearing that the allies may rally support for the target and against the bully. Co-workers who like and respect you thus not only help you survive a bully’s attacks, they serve as a preventative defense.

Don’t become the caribou calf a wolf might steer away from the herd. If you isolate yourself, a bully can spread rumors about you and even convince others that you’re a problem. Develop supportive relationships with your co-workers. Demonstrate your integrity in your daily actions. Above all, never let a bully come between you and your supervisor.

Given the prevalence of workplace bullies, you may face one in the next year. What leads bullies to target some individuals and not others? There are five factors, all of which you can control or address.