Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges related to this question: Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets?
My instinct has always been to answer “yes.” The works of Gary & Ruth Namie, Kenneth Westhues, and others have long reinforced for me that targets of bullying, mobbing, and abuse tend to be ethical individuals, and my own interactions with hundreds of self-identified bullying targets have underscored that belief.
But I think the question demands more than a simple yes or no answer. Like so many other topics concerning abuse at work, there are layers to it. Based on my fifteen years of working in this realm, I feel confident in making these observations:
First, whistleblowers are often bullied as a form of retaliation. This is the proverbial no-brainer. Challenging the legality and ethics of decisions and actions made in a less-than-wonderful organization can quickly place a target on one’s back.
This short piece cannot do justice to all of the relevant guidance that whistleblowers should consider in view of these risks, but suffice it to say that a decision to engage in such reporting activity should be made carefully, not impulsively, and with the fullest possible understanding of options and potential ramifications.
Second, people with a highly developed sense of ethics may stick out. Those who are perceived this way in an organization with a low ethical baseline will be more vulnerable to bullying and mobbing actions.
This observation yields potential lessons: If you find yourself in an unsavory organization, then it may be advisable to pick your battles carefully. Be wary of the risks of being perceived as an ethical crusader in a less-than-ethical workplace, and avoid gratuitous actions prompted by feelings of self-righteousness.
Third, very rare is the self-identified target of bullying or mobbing at work who struck me as being unethical or, as some might put it, “sketchy.”
There’s more to this seemingly milquetoast point than meets the eye. Consider the logical flip side question: Are ethically challenged folks actually at lower risk of being bullied at work?
There are exceptions, of course. For example, an employee who does something harmful or damaging could be on the receiving end of mobbing behaviors by resentful co-workers. Nevertheless, I would hypothesize that many potential workplace aggressors have the good sense not to mess around with their, umm, “peers”!
Okay folks, this is concededly more of a weekend meandering than a scientific investigation. I should add that before writing up this piece, I did a quick check to see if any research studies had delved into this topic. While predictably I found a lot about workplace bullying and organizational ethics generally, I didn’t find much specifically exploring the ethical profiles of the target population. This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be a challenge to assemble a representative cross-section of bullying targets to complete a survey instrument.
I hope this has been useful food for thought nonetheless.