Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Targets Leadership Mental Health Professionals

The Harmful Impact of Victim-Blaming in Workplace Bullying

blame, shame, blame, shame with red X and circle on top
Workplace bullying is a pervasive issue that significantly impacts the mental health, productivity, and overall well-being of employees. It involves repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. This behavior can manifest as verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors, and work interference. Unfortunately, discussions around workplace bullying often veer into victim-blaming territory, which exacerbates the suffering of those affected. Two common victim-blaming statements include asserting that bullying only becomes an issue when the target reports it and claiming that bullies are intimidated by their targets. These statements are deeply problematic for several reasons.

Saying that "bullying becomes an issue when the target reports it" shifts the focus from the actions of the bully to the responses of the target. It implies that the bullying would not be a problem if the target did not report it, thereby placing the onus of the problem on the victim. This perspective invalidates the target's experiences, suggesting their pain and distress are not significant unless they speak out. It can deter targets from reporting incidents, allowing bullying to continue unchecked and creating a toxic work environment. Moreover, it absolves the bully of responsibility, undermining the need for organizational accountability and effective anti-bullying measures.

Similarly, claiming that "bullies are intimidated by their targets" suggests that the target has somehow provoked the bullying behavior. This shifts the blame from the bully's unethical actions to the target’s characteristics or actions, perpetuating the harmful myth that the target could change something about themselves to stop the bullying. It unjustifiably legitimizes the bully’s harmful behavior by framing it as a defensive response, rather than recognizing it as an unacceptable action. This narrative can increase feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness among victims, exacerbating the emotional and psychological toll of bullying.

Understanding the real causes of workplace bullying is crucial. Bullying occurs because of the bully's unethical behavior and an organizational culture that does not take the issue seriously. Factors contributing to this include fractured group dynamics that have normalized bullying and leadership that either participates in the bullying or fails to stop it. These conditions create an environment where bullying is allowed to thrive, further victimizing the targets and undermining a healthy, supportive workplace culture. Therefore, it is essential to focus on these root causes rather than shifting blame onto the victims, ensuring that the responsibility for bullying lies squarely with those who perpetrate it and the organizations that fail to address it.

Take Action Today:

Educate Yourself and Others: Share this message with your colleagues and network to raise awareness about the true causes of workplace bullying.

Support the Victims: Listen, believe, and stand by those affected. Your support can make a world of difference.