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Are You Bully Bait?

Is there a bully in your workplace? Are you bully bait? Does your attitude and behavior mark you as an easy target for a bully? How do you respond when someone tries to bully you?

workplace bullying - Altizer LawWe might as well be honest: workplace bullying is rampant. And no, it is not illegal, unless it involves a target from a protected group of people. It is illegal to harass someone in the workplace because of their race, sex, age, religion, or national origin. Even then, a victim must prove that s/he was bullied because of a protected characteristic. Only a handful of states have introduced proposed legislation allowing an employee to sue their employer for an abusive work environment. This type of legislation (preventing workplace bullying) has never been proposed in Virginia.

The workplace bullying institute has estimated that more than 50 million people have been subjected to workplace bullying at some time during their careers. Employees are four times more likely to be bullied at work than to be legally harassed. Men are only slightly more likely than women to engage in bullying behaviors.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable actions by a supervisor or an employee  that is directed toward another employee with the intention of undermining, intimidating, humiliating, or degrading the target employee. Workplace bullying can also be an attempt to interfere with the target’s ability to perform work duties or to sabotage the employee’s career. Workplace bullying puts the health of the target employee at risk because bullying often causes emotional issues, such as:

  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Physical illness
  • Even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Workplace bullying can escalate. The typical escalation pattern is that a bully attempts to control or harm the target, the bully then pulls others into the bullying by getting them to side with him/her. This behavior is ignored or accepted until it becomes not only accepted behavior, but part of the corporate culture.

The legal definition of “hostile work environment” is creating a work environment with conduct that is so pervasive and severe that it permeates the work environment and interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his/her work duties. This is the definition used by agencies of the Federal government to determine when harassment has escalated to a level that is actionable.

Are You Bully Bait?

It is widely believed that people become the targets of bullies because they are believed by the bullies to be some kind of threat to him/her. It does not matter if there is not real threat. What matters is that the bully believes the target is a threat. According to research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, common targets seem to be the veteran and most skilled person in the group. Here are some key insights into what makes you bully bait:

  • Targets tend to be independent and refuse to be subservient to others. Bullies react to the efforts of targets to maintain their independence and personal dignity by escalating bullying activities.
  • Targets are typically more skilled than the bullies. Targets are often the recognized experts in the group. Their bullies tend to be insecure co-workers or supervisors who want to claim all of the credit for work done.
  • Targets are usually better liked and have better social skills and emotional intelligence than their bullies. They have earned the respect of colleagues, supervisors and customers.
  • Targets are almost always honest and ethical. Some are whistle-blowers, who are always bullied. Most targets are Are you bully bait? - Altizer Lawchosen because it is their nature to want to help, teach, and develop others.
  • Targets tend to be non-confrontational. Thus, they do not respond to bullying and confrontation with confrontational behavior. This is perceived by the bully as submissiveness, and interpreted as a license to continue bullying behaviors (for as long as the employer does not intervene).

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., is the author of Beating the Workplace Bully. In a recent article, she claimed that there are five factors that will tell you if you, or a co-worker, are bully bait.

  1. You pass the bully’s test. Bullies test people to see if they will endure bad treatment. If they do, the bullying escalates. Ignoring a bully will never work to your advantage. It will be perceived as weakness. If you don’t stand up to a bully’s first attack, you will be perceived as encouraging their bullying behavior.
  2. You give some signal that you are an easy target. Bullies have a knack for identifying people they believe are easy prey – often the nicest people. If you signal vulnerability, the bully will eat you alive. Standing up to a bully does not require aggression or unprofessionalism. You can simply respond with, “I don’t deserve that comment, and I’m not going to tolerate it. Don’t do it again.”
  3. You ignore warnings. Bullying tends to escalate. You should respond immediately to any first act of bad behavior. The more you ignore, the more the bad behavior will escalate until it is out of hand. Don’t send the wrong message by ignoring a bully.
  4. You have something the bully wants. In the workplace, this is most commonly a job or a title that the bully wants. The bully could also want the status and respect you have earned in your workplace. Sometimes bullies want to undermine someone’s reputation or destroy a good relationship with their supervisor. Often, targets are viewed as roadblocks to the bully’s promotion.
  5. You stand alone. Bullies seldom target individuals with a large number of allies or a strong power base. They will fear the actions of your supporters. Don’t isolate yourself or allow a bully to isolate you. If you are isolated, bullies can spread rumors and try to convince others that you are a problem.

An excellent response to an act of bullying – especially the first act – is to quietly leave the bully’s presence, return to your work space, and send an email outlining the interaction to your supervisor, the bully’s supervisor, and the human resources department. This puts everyone on notice that something inappropriate is happening, that you have no intention of tolerating it, and that you expect the company to take some action on your behalf.

Are you bully bait? Do you embody the characteristics that make people attractive targets for bullies? If you think you might be bully bait, start paying close attention to your behavior in the presence of bullies. Only you can change your behavior. Only you can stop being bait and stand up for yourself in the presence of bullies who want to target you.