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Workplace bullies target less attractive employees

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Some workplace bullies will target anyone for any reason. But preliminary research has shown that less attractive employees are more likely to become victims of bullying than others. 

Though much of the bullying research has focused on what leads someone to bully others, very little attention has been paid to what characteristics may draw their ire. A new study examined whether physical attractiveness and personality traits made people more likely to be the target of aggressive or hostile behavior from co-workers.

“We focused on the victim because the research literature has implicitly assumed that bullying behavior is due to the traits of the bully,” study author Dr. Timothy A. Judge, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, said.  “To reduce bullying, we need to see the whole picture.”

Previous studies have shown that attractive people are perceived as both friendlier and more likeable than unattractive people. They are treated better, receive more attention and experience less hostility from others, compared to their homelier colleagues.

Research on personality traits has found that people who are victims of bullying tend to have a more negative disposition - a tendency to be angry, anxious, emotional or irritable.

In the current study, published in the journal Human Performance, Judge also found that those with negative dispositions were more likely to be bullied than agreeable employees. These negative emotions were sensed by co-workers, suggesting that negative employees tend to elicit similar feelings in their coworkers, according to the study's authors.

The study also found that unattractive employees were more likely to be bullied at work. The authors offered several hypotheses to explain these results.

“One possibility is that unattractive employees act differently,” Judge said. “We know that attractiveness is related to self-esteem and low self-esteem is related to bullying by others – so it may be that unattractive employees show a victim mentality that makes them easy targets for workplace bullies.”

However, Judge ultimately blames society for placing too much value on looks.

“There are few occupations in which attractiveness is job-related, yet it plays an important role in hiring decisions, pay decisions and, we show, bullying behavior,” Judge said.

Another possibility is that bullies look for any excuse to target someone—whether it’s a physical handicap or an emotional vulnerability.

“Unattractiveness may be one of those cues that activate bullying instincts,” Judge said.  In fact, plenty of research has found that weak or unattractive children are more likely to be victims of schoolyard bullying.

“Some bullies may outgrow these tendencies less than we think,” Judge said.

Though bullies may not seem like the most self-reflective types of people, if they can better understand what sets off their hostility, they may be better able to control their behavior.  

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.