Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Midlife correlates with an increased risk of being bullied at work, suggest the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll released earlier this month.

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Dr. Gary Namie explained the rationale for conducting the instant poll:

For the 16 years of WBI operations, we have noticed that telephone callers seeking help with their workplace bullying problems are rarely young. They tend to be veteran workers with long careers. For a variety of reasons documented by other WBI studies older workers make ideal vulnerable targets. An earlier WBI study found the average age to be 41.

Triple jeopardy: Bullied and job seeking

It telling that so much of WBI’s contact base and website traffic comes from older workers who have taken the time to research and learn about what is happening to them. The implications of the bullying/middle age correlation are significant and daunting.

We have long known that job loss is the most common result of unresolved workplace bullying situations. The target either “chooses” to leave in order to avoid further abuse or is pushed out as the final step of a long course of mistreatment.

In addition, in this era of the Great Recession, older workers who lose their jobs face significant challenges obtaining comparable employment. Statistical data and anecdotal accounts relating to unemployment at middle age refute any assertion of a genuine economic “recovery.”

It follows that middle-aged bullying targets who lose their jobs often face a triple whammy:

First, even after leaving their jobs, many must confront the mental and physical health impacts of being treated abusively.

Second, they re-enter a job market increasingly hostile to older workers, while carrying the baggage of that terrible experience.

Third, these challenges often have a significant impact on their personal finances, requiring them to draw heavily upon savings and retirement accounts to stay afloat.

A good number of faithful readers of this blog fall into this general description. Their accounts pepper the comments to many posts.

Although “middle aged” is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.


You can read the full WBI instant poll report by Gary Namie here.

Related posts

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

13 responses

  1. Hello, This article really hits home for me. I was 53 years-old when I was bullied out of my job. I have not come to terms with what happened to me, since it was such a traumatic experience, one that has left me with tides of ill feelings each time I relive the episode. What totally confuses me is how the woman who abused her position, and got me to leave my job, got away with it. It was life altering. The loss of my income has put our family in financial dire, and we still feel the pangs of struggling to get by. How do you suggest one copes with this? How do the people who committ these acts of abuse continue on as though nothing ever happened? Thank you. Mary Lou

    Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2013 04:02:16 +0000 To:

  2. I am one of many who was bullied out the door in my 50’s after 30 years of dedicated and loyal service – because I did “too good of a job.” Once put in this situation, I began noticing that the large majority of people in the unemployment line were in my age group, that obviously highly intelligent and accomplished baby boomers were soliciting at my door selling wares with tears in their eyes, that the people working at the junk food places were my age, that I was being waited on in retail stores by previously highly accomplished baby boomers – and I started talking to them and comparing experiences. Ageism is alive and well, and it’s not those of retirement age where we at least can collect the social security we put into the system for decades. You are left suddenly with a mortgage and children still depending on you for a roof over their heads so they can finish college, car payments, expensive health insurance – and unable to buy food. The logic behind it makes no sense given the most experienced and once highly respected are being thrown out on the streets, which is where you will end up eventually once the retirement runs out, especially for those of us who lived our lives as single parents with no one there to help. Our children are too young to help us; they are just starting their lives out in new jobs or finishing up school. So what is the purpose of this? It has to be economic – is our healthcare expenses that much more than others, when we have no serious health problems? In the business I worked for, baby boomers were being thrown out the door on a monthly basis, one at a time, for the past five years. Each of us working in fear waiting for our turn, as we took our turn having our values obliterated behind closed doors repeatedly in hopes we would leave. It was intentional and beyond cruel. Is the government going to provide food and shelter for those of us who cannot find employment and are forced to leave our homes with nowhere to go – those of us who created that which others now have taken over with no experience to do so?

  3. I fit this description to a “T” yet I am surprised that so many who are bullied are middle-aged and likely in the middle of their careers. In my workplace there were younger employees who were bullied along with some middle-aged employees. I am 46 and was bullied out of my job/career 4 years ago. I had children later in life and at the time I was notified of my job loss I had a 7 month old and a 4 year old. It was a terrifying time. We have needed to dip into retirement funds more than once and have had many foreclosure notices. My husband and I were without insurance for a year but we were able to get subsidized health insurance from the state for the kids. I am beyond lucky that I have found a position in my field after 4 years of struggling and holding only part time/temporary jobs for 4 years. However, I am starting over for all intents and purposes … I will begin at a new institution as an asst. professor; my friends from graduate school are full professors making $12 – 20,000 more than me. HOnestly, I don’t care about the money. All I want now is to work with colleagues who treat each other humanely and with respect.

  4. As with KH I was bullied because I was highly effective. Perhaps it is implied in the second problem, but it should be clear that another way the bullied middle ager suffers is there reputation is damaged-they can not get letters of recommendations from previous employers and the rumor mill destroys their image in their professional field.

  5. I wonder how many people who have lost their jobs due to age discrimination and/or bullying have taken just a few minutes to post their experiences, anonymously, on This is a great resource for job-seekers especially. I’ve found the feedback from current and former employees of places where I’ve worked to be very accurate.

    This may not help us to recover from a traumatic experience in a personal way, but documenting the problems in your prior workplace on a public website might help someone else.

    • There is also – another resource that names bad bosses at specific workplaces. It does not matter if they move because you can go to linkedin to confirm.

      I agree with Marcia that arming yourself with information about the workplace culture should be part of the research you do on a company before you take a job offer.

  6. It took a while before I could even read this post – it hit home and resurrected old feelings. Yes, I’m in my fifties. Yes, I’ve plundered the retirement accounts. I encountered sexual harassment and bullying situations when I was younger, but without as much at stake, it was easy to leave. That wasn’t the situation when I got older – I needed the job.

  7. I am middle age and left an abusive work environment nearly two years ago. I was between a rock and a hard place; the stress from the mistreatment was making me ill but I knew if I left I would have a heck of a time finding a comparable job in terms of salary and benefits. I chose to leave and attempted to make a fresh start. Turns out the baggage I have from my previous experience has affected me more than I realized it would. That coupled with my age working against me has led to multiple rejections and sapped my motivation to even try any more.

    Would I have made the decision to leave knowing I would be going through a different kind of hell now? Yes, absolutely. But I would have prepared myself for unemployment by volunteering and surrounding myself with positive people to stay motivated. It is too easy to isolate and feel unvalued by society.

  8. Has anyone else had the experience of being set up to fail as a middle aged or older worker? That’s when you’re hired but given assignments impossible to fulfill, or placed in a bad work environment, or given incomplete or erroneous information. I suspect it’s a common HR ruse in larger firms: “We tried hiring an older (female) employee, and it didn’t work out.” Also happens if you’re the only non-union employee in a closed shop that’s having financial problems: they need to cut staff and rather than being decent about it, tell you that you’ve been fired because of poor performance.

  9. most Employers including New York State agencies, and Verizon, have a pattern of offering promotions, issuing certificates of appreciation, etc., and also leaving some space of time, at least three months, before they cause the work environment to become so hostile you have to leave.
    I’d say fight in the courts, but ultimately, get revenge. That’s what I’m going to do. So, justice will prevail.

  10. Pingback: Being Bullied at Mid-Life: Great article by David Yamada - Bluegrass Leadership

  11. Good morning. After reading several posts from this website, while agreeing and identifying with a few of them, I have a simple question. When does work place bullying become complete career sabotoge? Career sabotage involves a well planned course (most often done by an authority figure) of behind the scenes orchestrated actions. Such actions occur with but one goal in mind, to destory and remove the target of the planned sabotage. Career sabotage may begin with some level of workplace bullying. However, more often than not career sabotage begins in secret away from the target. Why? Because, just as workplace bullying targets, the career sabotaged employees are also seen as some of the most respected, visibly hard working and highly dedicated individuals at their respective employers. Career sabotaging is always secretive, workplace bullying is often done in the open in view of other employees. Workplace bullying has one goal, belittle and embarrass the target as much as possible. Breaking and/or weakening the employee to submit to the bullying is often the Bully’s prime goal.

    Noted above, career sabotage is done behind the scenes, and involves secretly enlisting a very select group of others to assist under false accusations (often started by one in charge, usually one’s manager (or another higher up) to promote an “out to get you” force.

    More information is available in my manuscript detailing more actions.
    Thank you

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I must strongly disagree with your narrower conceptualization of workplace bullying and the underlying intentions of the aggressors. Those who study workplace bullying and mobbing have been long aware of how aggressors often intend to undermine or even destroy targets’ careers and livelihoods and frequently succeed. Furthermore, future employability of targets has been one of our greatest concerns, for reasons that include ongoing undermining of their reputations by their aggressors.

      In addition, your claim that workplace bullying is usually done out in the open is simply wrong. Covert, behind-the-back actions have long been recognized as being among the most common and damaging forms of workplace bullying.

      It appears that you’re promoting the term “career sabotage” in connection with a writing project, and that’s absolutely your prerogative. But I ask that you not disregard decades of research and expert commentary by applying an erroneously restrictive conceptualization of workplace bullying in order to create a supposed void for your chosen terminology to occupy. Many of the underlying intentions, behaviors, and impacts that you reference under career sabotage are long-understood aspects of workplace bullying and mobbing.

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