Risk Factors for Becoming a Target of
Workplace Bullying and Mobbing
Gary Namie, PhD & Ruth Namie, PhD
Workplace Bullying Institute
In Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada (Eds.) Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States.
Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press, 2018
The chapter title implies that a host of personal characteristics can be identified that
predict why one person is targeted for bullying and others are not. We sort the identification into
three components: (a) the search for a dispositional or personality trait profile, (b) behaviors that
tend to lead to aggression directed against targets, and (c) characteristics of perpetrators that
operate either unilaterally or interactively with targeted workers’ actions. Next, we explore how
certain emotional consequences of being bullied exacerbate the harm endured by targets. They
are predictors of impact severity rather than being selected for bullying and mobbing. Finally, we
close with our predictions for a brighter future for targets of bullying.
Do Target Personalities Predict Bullying?
We begin with dispositional approaches to explain why certain individuals might be
Business school researchers like to include “victim precipitation” in their list of variables
explored in bullying-related studies. For example, Tepper, Duffy, Henle, and Lambert (2006)
defined victim precipitation as “the idea that some individuals may become at risk of being
victimized by provoking the hostility of potential perpetrators” (p.104). The authors explicitly
borrowed victim precipitation from criminal justice. For this particular study with a sample of
military supervisors and National Guard members, the authors incorporated an omnibus
dispositional tendency – negative affectivity (NA): people who experience high levels of distress,
feeling upset, afraid, or jittery – as a predictor of being abused by supervisors. High NA
individuals are less able to defend themselves against aggression and/or they are perceived by
coworkers as annoying, not likeable, and thus provocative. Tepper and colleagues (2006)
confirmed that those high in NA indeed perceived being treated more abusively. They concluded
that abusive supervision is a “trickle-down” phenomenon and called for organizations to first
treat supervisors more fairly if subordinates are to not be subjected abuse. (The lay term,“sh**
flows downhill,” known to nearly everyone, comes to mind.)
If the form of abuse under examination had been domestic violence, the analogous
recommendation would have been to first provide services for the batterers to satisfy their needs
with the hope it mitigates battering. Thankfully, domestic violence advocates appropriately
focused first on alleviating harm done to victims, then attending to the needs of batterers. Social
justice movements are driven by the unmet needs of victims, underdogs, the disadvantaged – not
the coddling of abusers, typically those who already enjoy the privileges of societal support.
Our methodological criticism of the Tepper et al. (2006) study is that subordinates’ NA
tendencies were queried contemporaneously with all other measures. In other words,
subordinates who had already experienced abusive supervision by one or more of the other
participants could have been made distressed, upset, afraid, and jittery specifically as the result
of the abuse. The researchers instead treated the NA trait cluster as an immutable pre-existing
characteristic of subordinates’ personalities.
In another study (Tepper, Moss, & Duffy, 2011), the researchers invoked moral exclusion
theory, which states that some targets deserve fair treatment (each person has a “scope of
justice”) and others are excluded from moral rules (assuming justice concerns for them are
inapplicable). Scope of justice refers to the range or boundaries for psychological fairness that an
individual holds with respect to how others should be treated (Opotow, 2012). Two ostensibly
objective variables – supervisors’ perceptions of emotional conflict with subordinates and work
performance of subordinates – were correlated with supervisors’ perceived dissimilarity from
subordinates. The findings demonstrated that subordinates targeted for abuse are those from
whom supervisors felt most dissimilar. Abuse was also more likely for those considered “poor
performers.” In the concluding discussion section of the study, there was an alarming call to
study rank-and-file employees’ acts of workplace deviance as a related predictor of abusive
supervision. This seems to further reflect a cool indifference toward targeted workers as
somehow less worthy.
Choosing victim precipitation as a research variable in bullying-related studies in the 21st
century is odd because it was deemed outdated as long ago as 1984 by researchers in its original
field of origin: criminal justice (Timmer & Norman, 1984). The sociology of criminal
victimization demonstrates how U.S. crime is structurally precipitated. The analogy for bullying
is that sophisticated studies place the dyadic relationship between perpetrator and target in the
broader context of organizational politics and leadership. Ignoring system factors is misguided.
In brief, criminology has abandoned victim precipitation.
The premier source of social science research on the topic is the Bergen Bullying
Research Group at the University of Bergen, Norway run by Stale Einarsen, clinical and
organizational psychologist. Lind, Glaso, Pallesen, and Einarsen (2009) challenged the predictive
power of personality of the target as the antecedent to bullying. Do targets possess flawed
personalities? They administered the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Five-Factor Inventory
(NEO-FFI), five-factor model of personality assessment instrument, to workers who had been
bullied and those who had not been bullied. Targets did not score higher on the Neuroticism
scale. They were no more anxious, worried, easily upset, or insecure than non-targets. However,
targets did score higher on the Conscientiousness scale, meaning they were self-disciplined,
organized, hardworking, moralistic, and rule-bound. The authors ruled out a general victim
Our American societal tendency to blame victims for their fate is worse than business
school myopia on the topic. The underlying process is part of normal person perception
principles and a form of automatic thinking, that if left unchecked, blames victims. Social
psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error (Jones, 1979). There is a significant
difference in how targets explain the reasons for the social misery that bullying has inflicted on
them and how outsiders (HR, coworkers, managers distant from the incidents) explain it.
Inculcated in American mythic culture is reverence for the power of the individual over
situations. Strong personal will is expected to overcome all obstacles. Conversely, research into
attribution biases shows that outsiders (observers, in research jargon) automatically, without
deliberate thought or malice, tend to overestimate the role of personality, or dispositional factors,
when explaining the actions of others (actors). Individuals themselves (the “actors”) see
themselves as behaving responsively to the push and pull of external, environmental factors.
They are adaptive and flexible.
From the target’s perspective, perpetrators and perpetrator support systems are part of the
environment, not aspects of who they are. Investigators who arrive at the ubiquitous finding in
bullying cases of simple “personality conflict” between the accused and complainant commit the
fundamental attribution error. They overestimate the contributory role of target personalities
(internal factors) to explain bullying. It is a way of perceiving targets as broken people. As
Tepper et al. (2011) concluded, bullied targets may be precluded from moral treatment based on
Unwanted, Uninvited Assault
No rational person thinks that anyone invites upon themselves repeated waves of
psychological assaults comprised of verbal abuse, threats to one’s identity, and paralyzing
intimidation that creates excessive distress over long periods of time. Bullying is an irrational
process. A variant of victim blaming is the assumption that the mistreatment was wanted or
invited. As with sexual harassment, bullying’s illegal cousin, no mistreatment is invited in the
eyes of the law. Just because bullying in the U.S. is currently legal does not make it less abusive
or disruptive to the targeted individuals and the organization.
Why Not Fight Back?
We now share observations about behaviors exhibited across targets that could also
trigger targethood. Given these are generalities, not every target exhibits all of the behaviors.
Targets do not defend themselves in the immediacy of the initial assault during which
bullies are probing for defenses or the lack thereof. They do not fight back because they cannot.
If they could have employed a combative defensive reply for immediate use, they would not be
targets. They would be one of the 73% of adult Americans who have never experienced bullying
(Namie, 2014a). And if they could have, they would have.
Ironically, targets do confront their bullies in 69% of cases (Namie, 2013a). However,
because they wait more than a month, the confrontation is ineffective. To effectively rebuff a
perpetrator, the response must be immediate and clearly contingent upon the assault directed at
the target. Delay dilutes the power of counter measures by breaking the connection between
assault and response. Waiting creates a lost opportunity to stop the bullying.
Target countermeasures are rendered ineffective also because the target operates in
isolation, often without any institutional support. The perpetrators and management have an
alliance, formal or informal, against the target. Human resources tends to promise support, then
fails to engage senior management to stop it. In fact, once HR alerts senior managers, the target
is disbelieved and discounted (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2010). In another study, D’Cruz and Noronha
(2011), recorded instances where coworkers who were friends with bullied targets helped their
beleaguered colleagues. This voluntary help refuted the do-nothing bystander effect typical of so
many coworker actions. Then, HR on behalf of the employer, reversed the helping. The authors
called this “helpless helpfulness,” invoked by the institution. The finding helps the reader
understand why targets are relatively powerless when bullying happens.
Gender and Targethood
Workplace bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) in its most
recent national survey of a representative sample of all adult Americans (Namie, 2014a) as
repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees: abusive
conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation,
humiliation or sabotage of work performance.
Respondents were queried about their personal experiences with abusive conduct. The term
“workplace bullying” did not appear in the survey. The prevalence was 27% – 7% describing
themselves as currently experiencing the mistreatment and 20% reporting it as part of their work
history. Witnesses, whose experience was vicarious rather than direct, comprised 21% of
respondents. Rounding out the sample were a group purportedly aware of bullying without
personally experiencing it (19%) and 28% who neither acknowledged bullying nor had any
experience with it.
From that 2014 survey, we also know that 60% of all targets are women. Women are also
perpetrators, but only a minority of them (31%). Women bullies disproportionately target women
as their targets (in 68% of cases). Twenty-one percent of all bullying is defined by the woman-
on-woman dyad. The male bully/male target pair represents 30% of all bullying.
The woman-on-woman aggression phenomenon has also been called the queen bee
phenomenon. The rationale of authors Derks, Van Laar, and Ellemers (2016) is that the
internecine hostility is a reaction to being members of a marginalized group – women in male-
dominated organizations. In this way, woman-on-woman psychological violence is the same
construct as horizontal (or lateral) violence, a term used in the nursing profession (Purpora,
Blegen, & Stotts, 2012). In both spheres, senior women distance themselves from, and even
aggress against, younger women that observers could argue need and deserve help from their
Feminist Phyllis Chesler (2009) explored women’s inhumanity to women in an important
book. She concluded that much of the cruelty shown to women by women is partly a remnant of
human evolution. At its core is internecine competition among females of most species. Female
humans have dense cortexes that can override impulses or instincts. Societal civility can cover
antisocial action. However, competition among women does occur.
We asked targets to contrast currently being bullied with having been bullied before but
not now. Same-gender pairings comprise 77% of the cases when only current bullying is
considered (Namie, 2014a). These pairings fairly often preclude targets invoking their
employers’ nondiscrimination policies, which are based on state and federal civil rights laws.
From a previous national survey, we know that 80% of all cases of mistreatment would not meet
Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint eligibility criteria (Namie, 2007).
In 2014, women targets were more likely to report being currently bullied when their
perpetrator was a woman (27%) than when the perpetrator was a man (15%). Women reported
much higher rates of historical bullying (47%) than did men (27%).
Anecdotally, the majority of calls to WBI from targets seeking advice were historically
from women. Respondents completing online surveys at the WBI website are typically women
(80-84%). We posit that women feel the pain from bullying and are motivated to reverse their
circumstances. Bullying comes with stigma attached. Men may be more reluctant to admit the
powerlessness that targethood connotes than women.
Salin and Hoel (2013) challenged the notion that workplace bullying is gender neutral (as
in it affects everyone similarly) by considering it a “gendered phenomenon.” That is, the
experience is different for women than men. Women are more likely to label negative acts
bullying and rate them more severely than men. This is partly explained by the lower status
women have in most organizations. In turn, lower power compels silence by targets and a
reliance on passive conflict resolution strategies at work, avoidance or denial. Women are more
likely to seek social support outside work rather than confront their bullies. Hence the
preponderance of women callers to WBI for help.
Race and Targethood
Individuals who are members of historically disadvantaged groups enjoy civil rights
protections codified in state and federal laws. That is, if they are members of a protected status
group such as women, minority races, older workers, or disabled individuals, they may be
eligible to file a complaint with their employer when nondiscrimination policies are believed to
For the WBI national survey (Namie, 2014a), the polling organization provided data on
four races of adult Americans surveyed: Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and
Whites. Each of the minority groups experienced a higher rate of abusive conduct than Whites
(24%): 33% of Hispanics, 33% of African-Americans, and 33% of Asian-Americans. Despite
worker familiarity with the illegality of racial discrimination in contemporary workplaces, that
knowledge seems to have not mitigated the mistreatment for members of those minority groups.
The data do not allow us to ascertain whether bullying supplements existing discrimination or
When we combine the prevalence rates for those who directly experienced bullying with
those who only witnessed it, we estimate the total proportion of individuals “affected” by
bullying. The national, whole sample, rate was 48% (Namie, 2014a). Hispanics were the most
affected (57%), African-Americans second (54 %), and Asian-Americans third (53%), compared
to Whites at 44%.
There were differences across the racial groups in which particular factors best explained
the bullying. The four factors across which survey respondents were asked to apportion
percentage of responsibility for abusive conduct were target characteristics, perpetrator
characteristics, the employer, and society. African-Americans assigned the high percentages to
employers (32%) and society (30%). Of all the racial groups, Hispanics blamed targets the most,
assigning 33% of responsibility. Perpetrators were blamed most by whites (47%). Asian-
Americans placed the most responsibility on employers (46%) of all the groups. The two groups
with the highest “external” explanatory factor percentages were African-Americans (62%) and
Asian-Americans (50%). Whites and Hispanics preferred “internal” personality factors to explain
bullying (68% & 65%, respectively).
When There is a History of Prior Abuse
Targets of bullying completed an online WBI survey asking when they first experienced
abuse of any kind in their lives. Forty-four percent reported their first abuse happening in their
family-of-origin (Namie, 2013c). In a more detailed study of targets, WBI found that 20% had
been subjected to partner violence, 20% abuse from siblings, 17% physical child abuse, 11%
sexual child abuse, and 10% adult sexual assault or rape (Namie, 2011a).
To be clear, prior abuse does not put a “kick me” sign on an adult’s back. However, it
does mean that that adult workplace target of abuse is more likely to recognize the mistreatment
than a person without historical experience. The emotional consequences of the emotional abuse
will not likely be delayed. Re-traumatization repeats the horrific feelings from prior experiences.
In fact, trauma victims can have their symptoms triggered by traumatizing events not related
their original experiences.
Targets who have never been traumatized can be bullied for weeks or months and not
recognize it. How? The American workplace can be toxic in so many ways that the mistreatment
directed at them could be considered routine, the “way business is done” in that organization.
Also, targets tend to be rule followers, not mavericks (or “social deviants,” as business school
researchers characterize them). Targets would not reflexively report wrongdoing without first
looking inward to explore how they might have caused a problem for their bully. This
misdirection postpones correctly identifying it for what it is. Often it is family or coworkers who
convince the target that the perpetrator’s actions are not normal or acceptable.
Targets late to recognize their bullying are at high risk for great harm, according to
Janoff-Bulman’s (1989) model. They are the ones with the most idealistic and optimistic views
of the world, having never been significantly mistreated. Prior abuse may serve to accelerate
recognition. The earlier recognition happens, the quicker resolution steps can be taken. In this
way, victims of prior abuse may be quicker to mobilize into action.
Target Behaviors As Predictors
We now explore a set of behaviors that workers exhibit that increase the likelihood that
they will be targeted for bullying and mobbing. We begin with actions that appear on the surface
to be counterintuitive triggers. That is, they are all positive. The three we discuss are (1) targets’
superior technical skill at the job, (2) targets’ popularity within the organization, and (3) targets’
aversion to political gamesmanship.
From our experiences with targets, the oft repeated mantra is: “I just want to be left alone
to do my job.” This plea to stop meddling comes from workers with a strong work ethic. They
feel obligated to perform well in exchange for a paycheck. They are not the socially deviant
workers; their workplace citizenship behaviors are above reproach. They are the exemplars –
honest, independent, ethical, team players, and the go-to experts about work procedures for
coworkers (Namie, 2003). From a hiring employer’s perspective, they are ideal conscientious
Strength and Optimism Are Liabilities
WBI asked self-described targets of bullying to state why they were targeted. First in
2003, then again in 2012 (Namie, 2012a), targets said bullying was triggered partly by their
strengths, not weaknesses. The two strengths were technical and social skills of a higher level
than their assailants. Making the social comparison with a stronger person creates tension for
some perpetrators. Rather than be comfortable with another person’s talent, regardless of rank –
subordinate, peer, or superior – some individuals choose to displace or torment the threatening
person. This is true especially when the target is known to be more intelligent than her or his
bully (Kim & Glomb, 2010).
In an experimental study (Parks & Stone, 2010), group members resented the most
altruistic member for making a greater contribution to the group. That effort was construed by
others as a superior, though unexpressed, morality than theirs. The least selfish members were
banished, second in unpopularity only to the most selfish group members.
It seems that possessing a cluster of positive work-related traits can get an American
worker in trouble, notwithstanding employer calls for engaged employees’ right under their
Behavioral patterns gleaned from court cases with which we have been involved, coupled
with the thousands of telephone tales heard by us, confirm that strong performers are the
individuals targeted. But why does performance strength not translate to the social skill of
rebuffing targeted psychological assaults?
We could as easily ask why nurses who tirelessly care for the health of others typically
ignore the impact of bullying on their personal health. Teachers who are effective with the
children of strangers often cannot teach their own children. Lawyers who advise clients
regarding legal conduct can commit unethical acts without self-restraint. It is paradoxical.
It is possible that the attention of targets is placed solely on work tasks with little time or
desire to focus on potentially destructive people in their work environment. In other words, limits
to one’s cognitive load may put the target at risk.
Janoff-Bulman’s (1989) theory of traumatization is a better explanation. She sorts
individuals who have been exposed to potentially traumatizing life events into two groups: those
who experience symptoms of trauma and those who do not. A belief in the benevolence (equity,
fairness) of the world is the key determinant of group membership. Holding such an optimistic
belief, an assumption about the surrounding world, is shattered when bullying invades that
person’s life. It overwhelms the person’s ability to cope. It is dissonant with a lifetime of positive
experiences and expectations – that people are fair, that hard work will be rewarded, that respect
is reciprocated. When those assumptions are shattered, trauma can result.
So, it is the optimist who is at risk. Cynical, pragmatic, and non-idealistic individuals
recognize workplace political game-playing as normal. The latter group is less shocked, less
surprised, less disappointed, hence less likely to be traumatized. Targets we have known were all
surprised, bushwhacked. They never saw the assaults coming at them.
Targets can stubbornly remain optimistic even in the face of years of brutal abuse. One-
quarter of targets cling to the belief that their employer will save them once it learns the extent of
the emotional abuse they suffer (Namie, 2013b). While they wait for the impossible, their health
is further compromised from unremitting exposure to distress.
Targets tell us via all channels of communication with the WBI that they are not political
game players (Namie, 2012). Some would see this as naiveté, a liability. Kramer (2006) asks us
to place a higher value on political intelligence than emotional intelligence in organizations.
People without political intelligence, being unaware of power relationships and consequences for
exercising power over others, have a harder time recognizing manipulative Machiavellian
behavior by others. It also makes it impossible for them to mount a successful counter to the
sophisticated campaign of destruction engineered by one or more perpetrators intent on
displacing the target. The requisite skills are not in their personal repertoire.
Of course, we never advise targets to lower themselves and act like bullies themselves. If
every person was driven purely by office politics, no work would ever get done.
Behavioral Antecedents to Targethood
From our two decades work in bullying and mobbing, we have observed the following
behaviors to be typical of targets.
Some targets are “nice.” Unfortunately, this is not a compliment as we commonly use the
term. Look up the definition. The word’s Latin root, nescius, means to be ignorant. It evolved
into being foolish or stupid. So, it’s better to be kind than nice. To be nice can make one easily
Many targets exhibit behaviors which make them high self-disclosers. They voluntarily
offer their future enemies ammunition with which to assassinate their character in the early
stages of their relationships, including those with potential perpetrators. They consider personal
information to be building blocks of new relationships. That is, they share intimate facts about
their lives expecting their bosses and coworkers to reciprocate with secrets of their own. Sadly,
such disclosures enable the exploitation around which future bullying is centered. Bullies are not
open, disclosing types. They solicit information from open targets only for the purpose of using
it later against them.
The risk from a strong attachment to a beloved job is an overinvestment of one’s identity
in that job. When work and identity become inseparable, a vulnerability opens for others to see.
One need not be a sadistic perpetrator to notice that the targeted individual may lack a balance
between life at work and life outside work. But sadistic bullies, especially those in management,
can leverage that overinvestment into maximizing the distress that accompanies the threat of job
or career loss.
It is difficult enough for targets to resume their lives after the bullying incidents have
been resolved, favorably or not. Starting over in another department at the same firm or finding
work at another employer is tough. But generating a new narrative for one’s life is a much larger
task (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2008). It requires essentially reinventing oneself after first grieving the
loss of the original self. When both job and identity are lost to bullying, the task is doubly hard.
Perfectionism is stressful and impossible to attain (Wirtz et al., 2007). High-achieving
bullied targets can fall prey to this demanding self-imposed form of criticism. In some cases,
targets tell us they won’t leave their job until they prove to their bully that the lies about their
incompetence are false. They will work harder to produce a result that will never satisfy the
abuser. Nor will it satisfy themselves. As they push harder, lose more sleep, grow more fatigued,
and experience neurological changes from the prolonged stress, they become less capable of their
former performance level. They are chasing an unattainable standard.
Ironically, perfectionism is used by bullies to justify their arbitrary and capricious work
assignments with floating, unachievable standards.
Bullying can be partially explained as being a compensatory process. Garcia, Restubog,
Kiewitz, Scott, and Tang (2014) traced the practice of abusive supervision to perpetrators’
history of aggression learned in their family-of-origin, mediated by states of angry rumination as
adults. And in that angry mental state, threat perception is more likely. Bullies may be adults
physically with an immaturity with respect to moral development and emotional intelligence.
Targets in a WBI online survey (Namie, 2012a) rated the abusive-toxic personality of
perpetrators as the second most important factor in why bullying happened to them. It was
ranked behind the target’s superior technical skill. Clearly, bullying is predicated upon
perpetrators’ need to control the lives of others. Perpetrators unilaterally choose who to target,
the choice of tactics, timing – including onset, cessation and resumption, and location. Targets
lack the power to alter those choices. The process is in no way a voluntary collaboration.
The non-WBI literature supports our conclusion about targets being good performers.
Fast and Chen (2009) believe a bully’s aggression is cover for supervisory incompetence.
Treadway, Shaughnessy, Breland, Yang and Reeves (2013) documented that politically skilled
bullies hide their lack of performance skill from their superiors. This is done through ingratiation
up the chain of command. Ingratiation cements the bond between perpetrator and management
sponsor. This allows bullies to abuse with impunity (Namie, 2009). When and if the bully is ever
exposed, the sponsor (as senior manager in the organization) often denies the facts and retains
the favored, albeit brutal, bully. A longitudinal five-year study bolsters our impunity claim
(Glambek, Skogstad, & Einarsen, 2016). Bullies are rarely punished.
There are two sources – one anecdotal and one empirical – which suggest that bullying
could be an interaction between dominating predators and their prey. The first is derived from
our consulting work in organizations. The work requires assessing and counseling identified
perpetrators. From that group comes a rationale for bullying that defies rationality. Many bullies
have told us that they preferred not to act abusively but that some individuals who could not
counter initial aggression deserved mistreatment. “Why?” we inquired. Because she or he could
not be respected by virtue of “allowing” themselves to be intimidated and humiliated. In this
way, bullying and mobbing was warranted by the unwilling perpetrator. This perverse reasoning
mirrors explanations based on provocative victims.
The empirical evidence for an interaction between abusers and abused victims comes
from a study of Canadian prisoners only obliquely related to bullying and mobbing. Book,
Costello, and Camilleri (2013) asked maximum security prisoners – some psychopathic, some
not – to choose from among videotaped men and women the ones they deemed easiest to mug
(with intent to rob or steal from) and to describe their selection criteria. The videotaped people
had described whether or not they had been previously victimized or assaulted in a way greater
than bullying. One woman had been the victim of sexual assault. Psychopathic prisoners showed
the highest accuracy in selecting the participants who had actually been victimized. Within the
psychopathic group, prisoners who scored high in the interpersonal/affective characteristics of
psychopaths – manipulativeness, superficial charm, and lack of empathy – were the ones with
greatest identification accuracy. These are the people most likely to exploit others. The
psychopathic traits of lack of behavioral control and impulsivity were not predictors of victim
Psychopaths high in the interpersonal traits of psychopathy based their selection of a
victim primarily on gait. In other words, they attended to how the videotaped person walked,
either with confidence or “like an easy target.” Gait was the principal cue connoting
vulnerability. As it turns out, the videotaped people who displayed vulnerable body language
were more likely to have had a history of victimization in the past. Psychopaths then chose those
same people for future victimization. The authors suggest this may account for bullied targets’
inability to escape repeating their targethood across situations and employers over time.
This study informs the literature on bullying and mobbing with its demonstration that
some victims do exhibit external displays of vulnerability. Some predators can sense it while
other observers cannot. But shouldn’t we distinguish everyday perpetrators of bullying and
mobbing in workplaces from imprisoned psychopaths?
Robert Hare, the Northern American authority on psychopathy, found in one study of
managers and executives that the prevalence of the traits in corporate America matched the
proportion in the general population (Babiak, Neumann, & Hare, 2010). The psychopaths at
work tended to be the highest ranking executives. The most psychopathic managers in the study
scored highest in the affective and interpersonal domains of psychopathy (and not in the lifestyle
and antisocial domains). Researchers had performance evaluation data from subordinates and
managers of those individuals. They were rated the most charismatic by others even when
performance skill was low. The researchers’ conclusion was that the pairing of psychopathic
abilities and intelligence enables managers to manipulate and con others. This finding matches
the Book et al. (2013) finding above with psychopathic prisoners
Ostracism, Isolation, and Self-Harm
Bullying polarizes witnesses in the workforce. When bosses give explicit orders to
exclude the targeted worker from work production activities, they are playing the “divide and
conquer” game. Exclusion from social life with coworkers typically follows.
Coworkers sort themselves into supporters of either the target or perpetrators.
Approximately 15% of coworkers publicly side with the bully and act aggressively toward the
target, their former friend (Namie, 2008). Once the target has been ostracized by peers, those
peers go to extraordinary lengths to rationalize their antisocial actions. They even muster anger
at the target for not having stood up and confronted the bully (Diekmann, Walker, Galinsky &
Tenbrunsel, 2012). Thus, the target is made to appear undeserving of help in coworkers’ eyes.
The targets most at risk of self-harm or suicide are people who live alone. The bullying
experience is extremely distressful. Social support is an important, perhaps the most important,
antidote to that distress. Family and friends become the only sources of validation and continuity
once colleagues from work sever ties with their bullied coworker (Namie, 2011b). Pets are an
inadequate buffer against the sea of overwhelming misery that bullying can bring.
Social isolation of the distressed target allows irrational, delusional, self-destructive
thoughts to emerge unchallenged. For years, the relationship between bullying and suicide
among adults was simply correlational. That is, the fact that bullying caused targets to consider
suicide could not be confirmed. In a longitudinal study spanning five years with a sample of
bullied and non-bullied workers, it was found that bullied targets were twice as likely to consider
suicide even after five years (Nielsen, Nielsen, Notelaers & Einarsen, 2015).
In one case with which this author is familiar, the target took great pains to draw the link
between the years of managerial abuse and the suicide. The target wrote multiple letters
explaining the reasons for the suicide. Police found the blood-stained letters near the body after
the shooting. No misinterpretation could be made by those who found the target. This is rare. It is
more likely that bullied workers lose their jobs, became estranged from family and children over
time, lose homes to foreclosure, live in their cars, begin to binge on alcohol, and decide to take
their lives when all perceived viable options run out. With this pattern of decline, it is difficult to
connect suicides to former workplaces. Yet it was the abusive workplace that unraveled the once
complete and satisfying lives of targets.
Powerful Bullying-Related Emotions – Shame and Guilt
There are many synonyms for workplace bullying – abusive conduct, psychological
violence, status-blind harassment, mobbing, abusive supervision, workplace aggression, and
emotional abuse. Emotional abuse evokes the most common harm associated with bullying,
psychological injury. Bullying is non-physical workplace violence.
The principal emotions related to bullying are shame and guilt. Targets universally
experience shame. Abusers are keen to generate that sense of shame, feelings of utter
worthlessness as a human being. When parents and teachers abuse children, the adults tell the
children they will never amount to anything. They are a big “nothing.” When spouses
emotionally abuse their partners, they say how unlovable the person is and how lucky she is to be
When workplace abusers disrespect another person at work, they treat them with
contempt. They treat them with utter disregard reserved for sub-humans, for those not on the
same level as the perpetrator. The bully’s narcissism provides the sought-after contrast. The
bully wants to convince the target that the bully is a “somebody” while the target is a “nobody.”
When targets come to believe the lie – it only needs to be repeated enough without the bully held
accountable – it starts to define the target’s reality. Shame is the result. Healing from shame
takes longer than it takes to simply remove the bully or to transfer the target to safety.
Guilt is a different emotion. Targets feel guilty for not having the courage/wits/ability to
counter the perpetrator’s initial onslaught. Once the domination begins, it is impossible for the
target to get to safety alone. Conscientious targets wish they had done more. In fact, it requires
either a large group of coworkers (a rare occurrence) or a benevolent and caring employer to
provide the requisite psychological safety.
Perceived Injustice and Obsessiveness
Two interrelated behaviors dominate the bullying experience throughout the prolonged
ordeal – sensing grave injustice and an obsessiveness over case details. Bullying is unjust
because it is primarily non-contingent punishment. There is no rational explanation for why the
target was selected, then subjected to the barrage of negative acts over such a long period of
time. If the bullying is done primarily behind closed doors, there are no witnesses. Perpetrators
who torment their prey in private know that if the description of events emerges as a tie – “he-
said, he-said” – managers win. The targets’ sense of injustice ensues.
The injustices of bullying can be characterized as procedural (the rules not being applied
fairly or consistently for all employees, the target is singled out for exclusion of rules),
distributive (resources needed to succeed are denied to the target and not to other employees,
guaranteeing failure), and retributive (fairness in punishment, it is meted out only to the target,
not others and for no rational reason). Injustice nags the target, often long after the employer’s
incomplete resolution. Injustice is rooted in the violation of the target’s expectations about the
work world that are shattered by the bully and the employer who backs the bully.
Obsessiveness is the inability to let go of the feelings of injustice. The comparative, and
objectively verifiable, data related to the differential treatment received by the target should not
be ignored. Targets’ thinking goes as follows: if only people would listen and if they would read
the voluminous accumulated documentation of years of incidents, justice could be won. Justice is
unlikely when the employer acts as both judge and jury and does not fully understand the
nuances of bullying and mobbing.
Without independent investigations, the truth is difficult to discover. Employers rely on
independent outsiders only in cases involving high-ranking managers and executives accused of
harassment whom they wish to retain. In fact, most bullied targets never see an investigation in
response to their complaints. Why? Because the vast majority of events, however destructive or
disgusting, fail to meet EEO criteria. Without illegality and the exposure to liability, employers
do not feel compelled to respond to mere bullying complaints.
Another explanation for targets’ obsessiveness is that they are not believed by authorities
with whom the sordid details are eventually shared. In only 9% of cases are targets believed
according to a WBI online survey (Namie, 2014b). For 53% of targets, the employer needed to
discredit the person as a liar. About 20% were believed until the perpetrator gave an opposing
tale (“he said-he said”), and 18% of targets were not believed because the misconduct described
sounded too outrageous to be possible. From the perspective of the senior manager hearing a
report that one of his favorite supervisors is a tyrant, it is more important to retain the bullying
supervisor, his personal friend, and to save face rather than to believe a worker he doesn’t know.
It’s not rational, but it’s understandable. This is exactly what happens in many cases.
When the case details are rejected by HR or the EEO officer for ineligibility (as happens
in most same-race or same-gender cases) and the target is not believed, the target feels
delegitimized. She or he is told that no response by the employer is compelled by law. This
triggers the downward emotional spiral characteristic of the bullying experience.
Anger and Embitterment
Consider a bullying case months after the bullying started. After shock from the
employer’s denial of responsibility subsides, targets tend to grow angrier. In many ways their
mental health is better. They are less vulnerable and emotionally fragile. However, they seem to
have become more like the social deviant from business school research studies. They certainly
did not start that way, but over time they evolved from the kind, patient, hardworking, naïve
worker into a one-person social movement hell-bent on finding justice for themselves.
A German psychiatrist, Linden (2003), described a subtype of adjustment disorder and
defined it as the mental reaction to exceptional negative life events. He called it embitterment,
post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED). PTED has three core factors: a strong sense of
injustice, deterioration of psychological well-being, and a desire for revenge. In a study gauging
PTED levels for bullied and non-bullied workers, Karatuna and Gok (2014) found consistently
higher scores by bullied workers on all dimensions. With prolonged exposure to distress,
changes in economic status, and strained family relations, the nastiness of embitterment becomes
What Stops the Bullying?
Bullying is demeaning, ostracizing, disempowering, cruel, threatening, humiliating,
untruthful, and unrelated to work itself. Yet it persists. In an online WBI survey (Namie, 2014c),
1,000 respondents ranked ordered the aspects of bullying which upset them the most. Ranked
from first to sixth are the following: (1) Being accused of incompetence when I possessed more
technical skills than my accuser, (2) Being humiliated in front of coworkers, (3) Feeling ashamed
though I did nothing wrong, (4) Management ignoring my complaint, (5) Having coworkers
ostracize, exclude, and reject me, and (6) Retaliation that followed my complaint.
In a large sample online WBI survey, we asked targets if their bullying had stopped, and
if it had, what made it stop (Namie, 2012b). It stopped for 25% of targets when they were
terminated; another 25% were made so miserable at work they were constructively discharged;
28% voluntarily quit typically for health’s sake; and 11% transferred to a different job with the
same employer (also perceived as unjust because “why should I be the one to move, I did
nothing”). Remarkably, perpetrators suffered some negative consequences – 5% were fired; 6%
were punished (but actions taken remained confidential and unknown to the target). It is clear
that targets pay the price to end the bullying. Once targeted for bullying, individuals have a 7 in
10 chance of losing their jobs.
Given the high rate of displacement from bullying, what is the financial and safety
aftermath for targets? WBI asked the questions in 2011. The financial impact is slightly more
negative than positive – 53% earned less money in a subsequent job; 39% did earn more. One-
quarter of the displaced targets never go a next job. With respect to safety from bullying, 37%
escaped and were safe; 31% were bullied in the next job. The best outcome – higher pay with
safety – was the fate of only 12% of targets. The rest got higher pay but were bullied again
(17%) or lower pay but were safe from bullying (25%) (Namie, 2011c).
Much of our advice to targets centers on raising their awareness of the importance of
avoiding irreversible stress-related health problems. Health and well-being need to be made
prominent when making decisions about staying with an employer who refuses to ensure
psychological safety for its workers. Too often, only fiscal matters factor into decisions. How
can one not “afford to leave” if the risk of stress-related lifetime impairments is 100%?
An Imagined Future Understanding of Bullying & Targets
Here is our modest proposal for how workplace bullying in America could and should be
• It is a natural, sometimes unavoidable, phenomenon that thrives only when
ignored or treated with indifference. When noticed and made transparent, it will
lose its harmful impact.
• Measure the prevalence in organizations and work together to attenuate the rate.
There need be no organizational shame. The only shame is knowing and failing to
• Hold executive leadership responsible for eradicating it. It is not an “HR issue.”
Only the culture shapers can have lasting impact and force change quickly.
• Tie the absence of abusive conduct to requisite managerial performance
evaluations and criteria for promotions and retention.
• Calculate the preventable costs associated with bullying. Monitor reductions in
risk management expenditures.
• De-stigmatize bullying for targets. Deny its power to shame. Encourage targets to
meet and be agents of change for the organization.
• Name perpetrators without demonizing them. Grant that they acted first out of
ignorance. Launch training in key management skills. Allow them to change their
behavior at work to avoid dismissal. If they don’t change, terminate.
• Adopt correction techniques using proper methods, not the mis-application of
conflict resolution tools. Focus on restorative justice for all affected employees.
• Make changes in hiring procedures that once made abusers appear attractive.
Change reference checking processes.
• Do not block hiring talented people if they were once targeted for bullying. Make
it easy to be honest about the necessity of leaving a toxic workplace.
• Recognize the competitive advantages to the employer bold enough to recruit
talent promising a psychologically safe workplace. Make the designation as
coveted as being one of the “Best Places to Work.”
Targets Are The Best Of Us
We compliment targets for representing the “better nature” of us all, as humans. The
exploited ones are the most sensitive among us. Regardless of the occupation they rely on for a
paycheck, they are our society’s artists, creative innovators, practitioners of peaceful relations,
the orchestrators of social networks at work based on kindness and loyalty, and the opposition to
the societal coarseness fostered by our capitalist culture. It’s a zero-sum competitive, winner-
take-all regimen that demands hypervigilance, constant attention to self-preservation, with little
time left for compassion for others. And in that dark side of the world of work, targets shine the
rare light. For this, they are mocked and selected for abuse.
“Work is, by its very nature, about violence to the spirit as well as the
body.... It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To
survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the
great many of us.” Studs Terkel (1974, p. xi)
Most employees in most workplaces are not doing anything close to what they love. They
are dispirited. We have found targets to have been very adaptive prior to their bullying. For one-
third of adult targets, the abuse sustained at work is first time they faced such humiliation,
intimidation, and threats (Namie, 2013c). Only one-fifth had been bullied during their school
years. So, before bullying, they believed in a fair world. Fueled by a strong work ethic and
optimism, they managed to find joy in their work. They deserve our admiration.
And they deserve thanks from every coworker for being the pioneers in a toxic
workplace. Targets are the sacrificial “canaries in the mine” who pay with their jobs, careers,
health (and sometimes their lives) as they live, then report, the terror of a workplace lacking
psychological safety for all workers. Each target story is a tragedy. It is worse when many
workers are allowed to suffer while the repeating, chronic abuser is allowed to operate without
accountability. Targets are sacrificed needlessly as the employer dodges responsibility by
effectively blaming the displaced workers, falsely branded as poor performers.
Not all bullied targets are whistleblowers in the technical sense. The facts they reveal are
not only about fraud or waste. However, they do reveal abuse – abusers and abusive practices –
that a good employer should neither tolerate nor encourage. Whistleblowers are incorrigible truth
tellers. Targets are the same. Organizations could learn lessons from both targets and
whistleblowers. In America, it is common to shoot messengers who bring unsolicited news that
all is not well in the trenches. Alas, that is the current fate of bullied targets.
Uniqueness of the WBI Perspective
We based information in this Chapter on four sets of data.
(1) Our direct anecdotal experience with individuals who sought advice from us about
extricating themselves from their bullying workplaces. We stopped counting the telephone
sessions at 10,000. From those typical hour-long harangues, we came to recognize patterns
common to bullying incidents and to patiently listen for the unique innovatively cruel twist
adopted by perpetrators. The calls flooded the Workplace Bullying Institute toll-free line in
WBI’s early years. Eventually, Jessi Eden Brown, the counseling professional whose chapter
(Chapter 13) can be found elsewhere in this volume, handled those desperate callers for WBI.
Our other deep engagement with targets derives from nearly two decades of training and
consulting to organizations and unions. This work connects us intimately to people and their
(2) We have gathered empirical data about the nuances of targets’ experiences from
nearly 50 online WBI surveys. The studies relied on self-selected (non-scientific) respondent
samples with results that can be extrapolated only to targets. The results are informative and
useful regarding the lives of targets.
(3) Experience with legal cases as an expert witness. It is a smaller sample than the two
above sources. In this role, the author derives in-depth knowledge about real world incidents
within complex organizations.
(4) The academic scientific literature on bullying has grown exponentially since the
movement’s founding by Heinz Leymann in the late 1980’s (Leymann, 1990). Most articles
published in peer review journals on the topic rely on targets as research participants, simply
because they are the most readily available. Most articles are not experiments based on
randomization. Instead they are descriptive by necessity. We cite works that best describe the
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