Are You a Bully Magnet?

Workplace bullying is epidemic. The research shows that three to four people out of every ten have been bullied. If you’re the one being bullied, you may be thinking, “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 cross-hairs. You can control four of these and impact the fifth.

You pass the test you need to fail

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 called her an “f-ing bitch.”

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 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 HR officer. The next day, Sue met with a chastened Jeff.

You signal you’re an easy target

Bullies operate with risk/benefit radar, zeroing in on individuals they consider easy prey, 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 either easy or difficult, simply stand up for yourself. If someone cuts you down respond quickly and professionally with, “You and I need to talk about that comment. I didn’t appreciate it.”

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

If you land or work in a bully-prone work environment, don’t wait for other to intervene. They may not realize the bully’s aggressive or manipulative nature, as bullies can present a charming façade 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.

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 cross-hairs. 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 or 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 realize and then don’t play the bully’s game, but address the situation directly and with integrity, you witness a failed bullying attempt.

You stand alone

Bullies rarely attack those with allies or a power base, fearing that the allies may rally support for the target and against the bully. Coworkers 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 coworkers. 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? Five factors, all of which you can control or address.

This article gives you a sense of what you’ll find if you read a copy of Beating the Workplace Bully, AMACOM,

You might enjoy these posts on outsmarting bullies,, and

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4 thoughts on “Are You a Bully Magnet?

  1. It’s taken me awhile to have the courage to read this. But it makes sense and is not so scary as I feared. It sounds like speaking up and not giving in or hiding out and trying to avoid the bully are among the best strategies.

  2. Very helpful as always. But I’d like to add that bullies can also seem “nice” as they slice and dice you to professional death. There are the “cute” remarks about your clothes, your laugh, your accent, your age, and so on. Everyone has a good laugh at your expense, all innocent fun, except that it undermines your seriousness of purpose, authority over junior workers and eventually impacts how people view the value of your contribution. If you say anything you’re accusing of being too sensitive or not having a sense of humor. But somehow the “big idea” the team choose as the one to go with is attributed to the bully instead of to the person who came up with it – YOU! Ultimately, there seemed to be no way to handle this except to leave – or hope the bully does. I got lucky. In my case, the bully decided to start his own company. On his way out the door he took some valuable company assets with him – clients, a junior designer and even some physical property. That’s when people began wondering why he seemed to be such a fun guy.

    1. Wendy, great comment as always.
      There are ways to handle bullyspeak, however, it’s hard to deftly comment back against “innocent fun,” without seeming problematic. One response is to say “pardon me?” with a nonjudgmental look as if you can’t believe the bully’s comment.

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