March 20th, 2013

WBI Study: Barriers to workplace bullied targets leaving their jobs

WBI 2013-C Instant Poll

One of the criticisms leveled against individuals targeted for workplace bullying is that they should “just” quit. That simplistic advice is cruel and short-sighted. Quitting is not a simple decision. Consider for a moment the single parent target. What will replace the lost income?

We at WBI who have talked to thousands of targets over the years by phone and in-person know there are other barriers to leaving a toxic work environment, regardless of how damaging that job and employer are to the target’s health. It is never easy to leave, to escape to safety.

This survey asks target-respondents to evaluate which two barriers listed convinced them to not leave.

WBI Instant Polls are online single-question surveys that rely upon self-selected samples of individuals bullied at work (typically 98% of any sample). No demographic data are collected. Our non-scientific Instant Polls accurately depict the perceptions of workers targeted for bullying at work as contrasted with the views of all adult Americans in our scientific national surveys.

We asked 713 target-respondents to answer the following question.

As a bullied target, what made (or makes) it hard to leave your bullying experience? Check up to 2 factors.

Percentages of each response (based on a total of 1,297 choices made) were:

.116 Personal pride — leaving is losing — they win

.160 Injustice of it all — I did nothing wrong — why should I quit?

.087 I love(d) my job/career too much to leave

.084 I gave the bully time, hoping for change

.116 I waited for employer to investigate & resolve

.037 I took time for me to prove the bully lied about me & my work

.278 Effect of losing my income on household

.048 No comparable jobs in the market — did not apply

.066 I applied for other jobs, got no offers

.007 Kept secret from family, leaving would be misunderstood

The top ranked barrier was the threat of lost income. In the U.S. losing a job also entails losing affordable employer-provided health insurance (if it was actually provided).

Three categories of factors were created by summing over single factor items. The first category — Integrity & Justice — included the items “Personal pride,” “Injustice of it all,” and “I loved my job.” The second cateogry — Allowing Time to Pass — included the items “I gave the bully time to change,” “I waited for an investigation,” and “I took time to disprove the lies.” The third category — Economic Factors — included the items “Effect of losing income,” “No jobs, did not apply,” and “I applied, got no offers.”

The solo item “Kept secret” was eliminated resulting in a sample of 1,287 choices of explanatory factors. The chart below depicts the percentages assigned to each of the three categories. Economic Factors (39.5% was chosen slightly more frequently than Integrity & Justice (36.6%) with Allowing Time to Pass the least frequent, but still chosen by nearly a quarter of respondents (23.9%).


The fact that bullied targets aren’t free to leave their bullying workplace because of the effects of lost income is obvious. However, the factors related to personal integrity (wanting to prove the bully a liar) and injustice (why should I have to quit?) were a close second. We hear repeatedly that what most bothers bullied targets is the unfairness, the injustice of it all. They neither provoked nor invited the bullying and yet they are expected to fix the problem caused by others.

Targets perceive pressure to stay on the job (and to ignore compounding health problems by increasing exposure to stressors) for economic and prideful reasons, nearly equally. Families, coworkers, and treating mental health professionals and physicians need to know the power of this principled stand against the injustice of being personally assaulted to see why the wounded target insists on not leaving their job. On the surface it is paradoxical. Now it can be better understood.

Finally, nearly a quarter of targets stay, deliberately letting time pass (and possibly getting sicker) because of an unfounded optimism. They hope the bully will change or the employer will complete an honest and credible investigation. Unfortunately, these are both extremely rare events.

The third item in the Time Passing category is that the target needed time to disprove the reputation-damaging, character-assassinating lies. The problem with this strategy is tautological, akin to a cat chasing one’s tail, not achievable. When lies are countered point-by-point, the liar simply resets the threshold by manufacturing new and different lies. It is an endless unsatisfying process for targets.

We advise targets to showcase the lies as part of the target’s public departure from the workplace (since it comes to that result in 77% of cases). That way, the bully does not get to be the oral historian when the target is gone.

Finally, the one category chosen by only 10 respondents was “Keeping it a secret.” This is good that it is so rare. Family members need to be engaged to give much needed support.

Gary Namie, PhD
Research Director, WBI

Do not use any of the above findings without properly citing the source as the Workplace Bullying Institute.

© 2013, WBI, All rights reserved.

Download a copy of this report.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 at 10:17 am and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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