This question is raised often during Q&A sessions of panel discussions and presentations about workplace bullying: What makes someone a potential target?
The answers, usually offered somewhat off-the-cuff (including by yours truly), vary:
- A high performer who incurs the resentment of a supervisor or co-workers;
- A marginal performer whose job security is shaky;
- Whistle blowers who threaten an unethical status quo;
- A socially popular employee who incurs resentment;
- A socially unpopular employee who incurs scorn and isolation;
- A person who doesn’t quite “fit in”;
- A physically attractive person who incurs resentment;
- A physically unattractive person who incurs disapproval;
- Someone with a characteristic associated with cultural or individual bias: sex, sexual orientation, social class, race, color, age, disability, etc.;
- A psychologically or situationally strong person whom an aggressor wants to break;
- A psychologically or situationally vulnerable person who attracts those in search of prey;
- An individual who voices unpopular opinions;
- And so on…
The short answer: They stick out
Folks, it’s all of the above.
Indeed, after considering all of these legitimate possibilities, for me it boils down to this: Potential workplace bullying targets usually stick out in some way to potential aggressors. By some characteristic or behavior, they unwittingly trip a wire that unleashes abusive behaviors.
I’ve thought a lot about this in light of attempts by some researchers and theorists to engage in target profiling. It usually starts with a hypothesis that targets are weak and vulnerable individuals who cannot defend themselves from the verbal and non-verbal onslaughts of workplace bullying. On occasion it leads to the disturbing implication that we can “end” workplace bullying by not hiring likely targets.
It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.
The indiscriminate aggressor
Of course, we also know that some aggressors appear to be indiscriminate in terms of their targets. Perhaps it’s the boss who routinely bullies any individual unfortunate enough to be his administrative assistant. Or maybe it’s someone who carries so much hostility and resentment, or is so psychologically damaged, that acting abusively toward others is standard behavior.
In such circumstances, virtually anyone is a potential target.