Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying

Is Calling a Person Who Is Bullied a Target Harmful?

a red and white target with three darts in it
Original Publication Date: June 11, 2017; Edited and Republished on August 17, 2022
Bully culture is almost always stacked against the target.  This includes the very language around identifying victims.  The term target is the most frequently used term to identify a person who is the victim of workplace aggression. But is the language we are using to identify workers who experience workplace bullying harmful?

There are many different definitions to the term target. Merriam-Webster  defines target as "someone fired at or marked for attack, "an object of ridicule or criticism," and "a person against whom a federal prosecutor has substantial evidence of involvement in criminal activity and who the prosecutor believes is likely to be indicted by a grand jury. (2022).  All of these definitions are loaded with negative connotations implying that the target has done something wrong.

Many people already have very strong convictions and preconceived notions about who is likely to be targeted by workplace bullying.  They often refuse to hear an alternative perspective about targets because these beliefs are so ingrained into them, into the narrative around victims, and it's a part of their organizational culture.  These ideas often are victim-blaming and consist of targets having personality flaws or weaknesses in performing their jobs. Essentially, the targets deserve what is happening to them.

Another reason these preconceived notions are solidified into people’s beliefs is because it’s a self-protection mechanism. Bullying happens to “those people” and workers believe they’re not flawed, so they’re not at risk for bullying. This is a comforting thought.

By using the term "target," we confirm these preconceived ideas. It implies there are distinguishing characteristics that put a bullseye or "target" on that person. This mark identifies them as the victim and reinforces that there is something wrong with the victim.

Words matter in a toxic environment and anything that can be done to stop the vilification of targets is important.  The term "vulnerable worker" is a more appropriate term because it reinforces that all workers are vulnerable to becoming a target of workplace bullying. Workers did not do anything to be victimized.  They were in the wrong place at the right time.  Workers are not bullied because of personality flaws or work ethic issues. Instead, they are bullied because the organizational culture fails to intervene and allows it to happen.  Everyone is vulnerable to becoming the next target in bully culture.

By changing the language we use to talk about bullying, we can challenge views on who gets bullied at work. It also provides a more accurate portrayal of the problem and the solution.