Unlike schoolyard bullying, people are not targeted by bullies because they are ‘loners’ without friends to stand up to the bullying gang. Nor are they weaklings. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), in most instances, people are targeted because they pose a ‘threat’ to the perpetrators. The perception of threat is entirely in the perpetrators’ minds and is what they feel and believe about the world and the people around them.

WBI research involving conversations with thousands of targets indicates that targets tend to be the veterans and most skilled people in the workgroup. They tend to be independent and not willing to display subservient behaviour.

Bullies look to enslave targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity, as well as their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation. The bully’s focus is to seize control over the target’s work.

Studies suggest that targets tend to be more technically skilled than their bullies. They are the ‘go-to’ veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can’t stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses tend to usurp credit from skilled targets.

Targets are normally better liked, they have more social skills, and tend to possess greater emotional intelligence. They have genuine empathy – even for their bullies. Management, customers and colleagues – with the exception of the bullies and their sponsors – value the warmth targets bring to the workplace.

Surveys of targeted individuals find that they tend to be ethical and honest people. Some targets are whistle-blowers, who expose fraudulent practices. And, virtually every whistle-blower is bullied. Targets are not schemers or manipulators. They tend to be guileless. The most easily exploited targets are people with personalities founded on a prosocial orientation – a desire to help, heal, teach, develop and nurture others.

Research also suggests targets are non-confrontive. They do not respond to aggression with aggression. Where there are no policies and procedures in place to manage bullying, targeted individuals tend to ignore or discount bullying behaviour, or simply try and absorb the treatment silently. But the price of the target’s apparent passivity is that the bully and their sponsors are able to act with impunity – for as long as the employer also does nothing.

The price a company pays for such bullying is the loss of productivity, not only of the target, but fellow colleagues who fear becoming a target themselves. Workplace energies start to be directed towards appeasing the bully and their sponsors as opposed to managing the business of work. Productivity and profits are directly impacted.



Harvard Business Review


SA Board for People Practice


Workplace Bullying Institute




TUC – changing the world of work for good


Dichthelabel – The Annual Bullying Survey 2019


CRC Health


No Workplace Bullies