Is workplace bullying becoming more targeted and insidious?


Certain traits make individuals susceptible to the careful targeting of workplace bullies, research says. What are some of the covert methods they use?

How do workplace bullies pick their targets? There are certain characteristics they hone in on, says new research by James Cook University. For instance, if you were previously bullied as a child, are young, female and/or neurotic – you’re exactly what bullies are looking for.

Old wounds

Being bullied as a child can alter your brain structure, says research by the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. According to the study, adolescent girls who were bullied in their childhood have thinner temporal and prefrontal cortices – the determiners of our emotional responses and impulse levels. Having a thin prefrontal cortex can result in anxiety in adulthood.    

Neuroticism, one of the “big five” major dimensions of personality traits, is a key predictor for anxiety and depressive disorders. People who score high on neuroticism are more likely to experience negative emotions such as worrying, anger, inability to cope with stress, self-consciousness and hostility. They’re also more likely to be bullied.

The psychology of a bully

A higher degree of neuroticism might make you a target of bullying, but what kind of psychology makes a person likely to bully someone else? Despite a popular myth (one your mother might have told you when you were in school) bullies don’t often have low self-esteem.

According to clinical psychologist Dr Mary Lamia, bullies actually possess a lot of self-esteem and “hubristic pride”. Writing in the Guardian, she explains that their behaviour is a reaction to internalised shame (the other typical reaction types being withdrawal, avoidance, and attacking oneself). “They attack others to take away their shame – which allows them to remain unaware of their feelings,” she writes.

She also explains the disquieting relationship that can develop between certain bullies and their victims. “People who bullies target tend to be sensitive people who are likely to attack themselves in response to shame. Self-blame can maintain a relationship with a bully, but it comes at the expense of keeping oneself a victim.”

But how do bullies actually take advantage of vulnerable people?

Covert bullying

This passive-aggressive and subtle form of bullying is designed to play on the insecurities of the victim. The deceptive nature of covert workplace bullying can make it difficult to prove, and therefore more destructive. According to Psychology Today, the behaviours associated with covert bullying include:

  • sarcasm and joking in an attempt to shame or embarass;
  • gossiping;
  • social exclusion;
  • patronising language or gestures, and condescending eye-contact; and
  • the sharing of negative information and images (cyberbullying).

Keyboard warriors

There’s evidence that  workplace cyberbullying is increasing the world over, including in India and New Zealand. There haven’t been many recent Australian studies, but one in 2015 of 600 government workers found that 72 per cent had either been the victim of, or witnessed cyberbullying within a six month period.

What can make cyberbullying particularly dangerous is that it is difficult to pinpoint and define, and can be anonymous in nature.

Dr Felicity Lawrence from QUT’s Faculty of Education defined it as, “Overt or anonymous person or task-related bullying where other workers or external clients use technology to instantaneously and publicly broadcast a comment, video or picture, anywhere and anytime, to embarrass or defame the target”. But other definitions include behaviours that cause exclusion and isolation, such as leaving people out of group chats or supplying them with wrong or misleading information in an attempt to sabotage.

Long tentacles

Cyberbullying doesn’t stop at the end of the work day. Due to our “always on” culture, this form of bullying can leap over the work-life boundary. This can make the victim feel even more trapped, and unable to find respite from the negativity.

In this way, the harm caused by cyberbullying can be more far reaching than traditional forms of bullying. Public smearing on social media platforms can also lead to reputational and career damage.

What employers should be aware of

Organisations should have a policy in place that includes processes and reporting channels which relate not only fellow employees, but external sources such as customers, clients, or others familiar to the individual. For more information, read our in-depth article from last year on how HR can stem the tide of bullying in their organisation.


Learn what employers’ legal and duty of care obligations are for preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace with the AHRI short course ‘Bullying and harassment’.

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Real eye opener, and right on target

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Is workplace bullying becoming more targeted and insidious?


Certain traits make individuals susceptible to the careful targeting of workplace bullies, research says. What are some of the covert methods they use?

How do workplace bullies pick their targets? There are certain characteristics they hone in on, says new research by James Cook University. For instance, if you were previously bullied as a child, are young, female and/or neurotic – you’re exactly what bullies are looking for.

Old wounds

Being bullied as a child can alter your brain structure, says research by the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. According to the study, adolescent girls who were bullied in their childhood have thinner temporal and prefrontal cortices – the determiners of our emotional responses and impulse levels. Having a thin prefrontal cortex can result in anxiety in adulthood.    

Neuroticism, one of the “big five” major dimensions of personality traits, is a key predictor for anxiety and depressive disorders. People who score high on neuroticism are more likely to experience negative emotions such as worrying, anger, inability to cope with stress, self-consciousness and hostility. They’re also more likely to be bullied.

The psychology of a bully

A higher degree of neuroticism might make you a target of bullying, but what kind of psychology makes a person likely to bully someone else? Despite a popular myth (one your mother might have told you when you were in school) bullies don’t often have low self-esteem.

According to clinical psychologist Dr Mary Lamia, bullies actually possess a lot of self-esteem and “hubristic pride”. Writing in the Guardian, she explains that their behaviour is a reaction to internalised shame (the other typical reaction types being withdrawal, avoidance, and attacking oneself). “They attack others to take away their shame – which allows them to remain unaware of their feelings,” she writes.

She also explains the disquieting relationship that can develop between certain bullies and their victims. “People who bullies target tend to be sensitive people who are likely to attack themselves in response to shame. Self-blame can maintain a relationship with a bully, but it comes at the expense of keeping oneself a victim.”

But how do bullies actually take advantage of vulnerable people?

Covert bullying

This passive-aggressive and subtle form of bullying is designed to play on the insecurities of the victim. The deceptive nature of covert workplace bullying can make it difficult to prove, and therefore more destructive. According to Psychology Today, the behaviours associated with covert bullying include:

  • sarcasm and joking in an attempt to shame or embarass;
  • gossiping;
  • social exclusion;
  • patronising language or gestures, and condescending eye-contact; and
  • the sharing of negative information and images (cyberbullying).

Keyboard warriors

There’s evidence that  workplace cyberbullying is increasing the world over, including in India and New Zealand. There haven’t been many recent Australian studies, but one in 2015 of 600 government workers found that 72 per cent had either been the victim of, or witnessed cyberbullying within a six month period.

What can make cyberbullying particularly dangerous is that it is difficult to pinpoint and define, and can be anonymous in nature.

Dr Felicity Lawrence from QUT’s Faculty of Education defined it as, “Overt or anonymous person or task-related bullying where other workers or external clients use technology to instantaneously and publicly broadcast a comment, video or picture, anywhere and anytime, to embarrass or defame the target”. But other definitions include behaviours that cause exclusion and isolation, such as leaving people out of group chats or supplying them with wrong or misleading information in an attempt to sabotage.

Long tentacles

Cyberbullying doesn’t stop at the end of the work day. Due to our “always on” culture, this form of bullying can leap over the work-life boundary. This can make the victim feel even more trapped, and unable to find respite from the negativity.

In this way, the harm caused by cyberbullying can be more far reaching than traditional forms of bullying. Public smearing on social media platforms can also lead to reputational and career damage.

What employers should be aware of

Organisations should have a policy in place that includes processes and reporting channels which relate not only fellow employees, but external sources such as customers, clients, or others familiar to the individual. For more information, read our in-depth article from last year on how HR can stem the tide of bullying in their organisation.


Learn what employers’ legal and duty of care obligations are for preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace with the AHRI short course ‘Bullying and harassment’.

Leave a reply

1 Comment On "Is workplace bullying becoming more targeted and insidious?"

avatar
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Notify me of
Michelle

Real eye opener, and right on target

More on HRM