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Bullies Don't Just Happen to Kids

Updated: May 12, 2019

Author: Sandra L Macke-Piper, MSC | CPA| PLPC

In light of the recent publication of the 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harrassment Study (, a blog I posted last year seems worth re-posting.

A study about bullying out of the University of Illinois defines it as distinct from other types of aggressive behavior. Bullying occurs in the context of a relationship, in which there is an imbalance of power between two people and the abuse occurs over time (Rodkin, Espelage, & Hannish, 2015). Swearer & Hymel (2015) describe it as a “complex form of interpersonal aggression” and talk about bullying as a “stressful life event” for the both the bully and their victim. It is also a “group phenomenon, occurring in a social context in which various factors serve to promote, maintain, or suppress such behavior”. In other words, the culture in which the bullying occurs can . . .

  • - actively promote it

  • - passively permit the existence of it

  • - or actively throw cold water on the behavior.

Most studies about bullying reference children in school settings but the phenomenon is not confined to childhood. It can and does happen to adults in places where they work. Generally, it occurs in situations where unequal power exists and is arguably more stressful for the recipient than the perpetrator.

Sadly, adults are no better equipped to address it than their childhood counterparts. Perhaps less so. Because as adults, we believe somehow the bully is someone with whom we can successfully reason. Many times, those surrounding the target of the bully, fail to see how difficult it is for the victim. There is a tendency by people, who are not the direct target of the bullying, to mentally minimize the damaging effects on those at the receiving end. They may have a relationship with the bully and have difficulty understanding that a person, with whom they may get along, is abusive to someone else.

If another person in the organization, has previously been the target of the bully and they were able to get the bad behavior to stop, that person may operate under the assumption that if the victim would only do something differently, they would not have a problem. A lot of unfortunate advice about how to handle a bully has been handed out on the basis of this misguided belief.

Compounding the problem for the target, their ability to get respite may be hampered. Sometimes victims keep quiet, with the hope the bully will eventually get bored or stop the behavior. If the target gets angry and protests, they run the risk of being seen as the problem. In either of these scenarios, the victim becomes more isolated and this empowers the bully’s behavior to continue and sometimes escalate.

For anyone who calls out a bully, be prepared. These people are not pushovers. They can be very manipulative and will work to get others on their side and speak for them. Lipsey (1992) found interventions with male bullies in school, who had social support in their environment, were likely to become more aggressive. This is not just true for school. If pathology exists in the environment, which creates support for the bully, increased aggression is not uncommon.

Similar to what happens with abuse in dysfunctional families, within organizations excuses are made and internal resistance to direct and assertive confrontation of the bully may exist. All the while time passes with excruciating slowness for the bully’s lucky recipient. The stress eats away at their emotional resilience. They may also begin to feel paranoid as bullies sometimes become emboldened by the lack of push-back and start doing things to gaslight their target. The target may begin to question their judgement or perception asking themselves

  • Is it really as bad as I think it is?

  • Perhaps I am exaggerating?

  • Maybe I really am doing something wrong?

If this is you, then stop. You did nothing wrong. You did nothing to deserve this treatment. Tell the voice in your head to shut the hell up.

What should you do if you become the target of a workplace bully? Some of it depends on the culture of where you work. Questions to ask yourself include

  • How long has the behavior been going on?

  • How many victims have there been and was it effectively addressed in the past?

  • If it was addressed, what was it that worked and by what mechanism?

  • If it was not effectively addressed, has there been a change in management since that time?

  • Can you find an advocate within the organization to assist you?

  • Are you able to leave? How quickly?

If you are not currently in a position to leave, develop a timeline with a definitive end-date and then work toward that goal. Network with people outside your organization. This is a great way to expand your contacts and potentially create an early exit ramp for yourself. Find a counselor who is intimately familiar with the dynamics of bullying and will validate and support you during this extremely stressful time. Spend time with friends. Get a massage.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether fighting the bully is worth your time and effort. Sometimes it is better, for your own mental health, to acknowledge the situation sucks and get the heck out. Life is short. It is almost always better if you can spend your energy on personal growth and moving yourself forward.


Lipsey, M.W. (1992). The effect of treatment on juvenile delinquents: Results from meta-analysis. In F. Loesel & D. Bender (Eds.). Psychology and law: International perspectives (pp 131-143). Berline, German: Walter De Gruyter.

Rodkin, P.C., Espelage, D.L. & Hanish, L.D. (2015). A relational framework for understanding bullying: Developmental antecedents and outcomes. American Psychology, 70(4), 311-321.

Swearer, S.M. & Hymel, S. (2015). Understanding the psychology of bullying: Moving toward a social-ecological diathesis-stress model. American Psychology, 70(4), 344-353.

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