Where first-time abuse took place for workplace bullying targets


“Targets with prior brushes with abuse in their lives do not necessarily risk being targets of workplace bullying. However, when targeted, emotional memories are quickly triggered, and those targets are subject to re-traumatization. The levels of emotional pain, shame, and distress are much more severe than for individuals experiencing abuse for the first time as an adult in the workplace,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). WBI adds that perhaps those who experience abuse for the first time at work take longer to recognize the behavior as bullying because the abuse doesn’t trigger any memories of prior abuse.

In a 2013 poll, WBI found that these options as the most frequent sources of initial abuse, in order of popularity:

  • Families: 44 percent
  • Work (no prior abuse): 33 percent
  • School: 19 percent
  • Strangers: 4 percent


“Within the family-of-origin (FOO), parents were the abusers for 69 percent of targets who claimed the initial abuse happened in the family. Of parents, fathers were 56 percent of first-time abusers,” explains WBI. “Siblings abused at a much lower rate than parents, …with brothers and sisters… equally likely to be first abusers. Older siblings were 24 times more likely than younger siblings to be the abuser when it was a brother and 8 times more likely when it was a sister.


“For one-third of targets of workplace bullying, the abuse they endure is the first-ever experience of its kind in their lives,” explains WBI. “Bosses are 1.9 times more likely to be the abusers than are coworkers. Bosses represent 22 percent of first-time abusers overall. Considering only the workplace as the source of abuse, bosses are 65 percent of the abusers. Note how closely this follows from the national statistic that of all bullies, 72 percent are bosses (WBI 2007 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey). In this WBI-IP survey, the majority of bosses who were first-time abusers were women (56 percent).”

“Coworkers are notoriously sources of distress and disappointment for bullied workers….,” adds WBI. “In this WBI survey, coworkers were much less likely than bosses to be first-time abusers. Within coworkers, women coworkers (77 percent) were over 3 times more likely to be first-time abusers than male coworkers. Women coworkers represented 27 percent of the workplace first-time abusers, slightly less than male bosses and a full 10 percent less frequent than women bosses.”


“Classmates were abusers nearly 3.5 times more frequently than were teachers, representing 77 percent of in-school abusers,” says WBI. “Of classmates, female abusers (remember our predominantly adult female respondent pool) were slightly more frequent (40 percent of in-school abusers) than were male classmate abusers (37 percent). The girl-on-girl statistic does not appear to be an accurate predictor of the 80 percent rate by which adult women bullies target other women as targets (WBI 2010 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey). When the first abuser was identified as a K-12 teacher, women teachers (17 percent of in-school abusers) were more of a problem than were men teachers.”


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