Mobbing, although sometimes mischaracterized as workplace conflict, is actually a pernicious and dangerous workplace injury. It isn’t as common as individual bullying, because it tends to occur only to tenured college/school faculty, or to employees in the hospitals, factories, and other workplaces that have strong union or seniority systems.
But those of us who have survived a mobbing will never forget it.
So what exactly is mobbing? The term itself comes from animal psychology; an example is the ugly duckling being cruelly pecked by the flock because he looks different.
Mobbing in the workplace is a kind of mass bullying, with collusion or active participation of the management. It is a group campaign of harassment and cruelty, conscious or unconscious, designed to undermine the confidence, impugn the competence, and undercut the effectiveness of certain employees.
Who is targeted?
Ironically, the most productive, innovative, and principled employees are frequently targeted, especially if they are creative problem solvers, dedicated hard workers or idealists devoted to achieving the professed mission and vision of the organization.
Other likely targets are those who are don’t fit with the dominant workplace culture such as members of a minority religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, those whose first language is not English, and, in academia, those from a working class background.
If they are comfortable with their differences and expect equitable treatment, the likelihood of being mobbed increases.
Individuals who have the courage to stand up for others who are being attacked, can themselves become mobbing victims, even if they don’t fit the other categories.
Employees who are innovative, different, and courageous are at extreme risk of mobbing in any dysfunctional organization.
Why do people mob?
Motives of mobbers overlap with those of bullies. Those who mob often feel secretly inadequate and threatened by those more competent and creative. Or they may be aware on some level that they have benefited from discrimination against other groups and are grimly determined to hold on to their existing privilege, however unjustified.
They may be terrified of change and feel as if their very survival hinges on the maintenance of the status quo. They may believe they are waging a righteous war against evil influences. In their minds, the perceived threat justifies any action or behavior, any accusations to undermine the targeted person, even blatant lies, gross exaggerations, or patent injustice.
What happens in a mobbing?
Some common mobbing actions include:
- ignoring people’s work or giving credit to others,
- discrediting their work and magnifying minor mistakes,
- taking away their responsibilities,
- leaving them out of important meetings,
- spreading vicious lies and rumors about targets’ personal or professional lives,
- giving them undeservedly poor evaluations,
- trashing their offices or homes,
- even threatening or attempting physical violence;
- in some cases accusing those targeted of initiating the violence they were victims of.
They characterize the victims as difficult or impossible to work with and blame them for bringing the problems on themselves.
Why don’t mobbing victims just leave?
If people didn’t have seniority or tenure, they would most likely be fired or quit when they become the target of such mistreatment. But, those who are the financial mainstays of their families, those who have struggled and sacrificed mightily to succeed professionally, or those whose self-esteem is entirely intertwined with their work, find it difficult to leave even in the face of horrendous abuse.
The consequences to mobbing targets.
At its worst, campaigns of mobbing have led to the deaths of those targeted, either because of suicide or life threatening illnesses that would have been manageable without the overwhelming stress of this hostile work environment.
Many struggle with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).
Some of them, previously successful but unable to comprehend what happened to them, have never worked again or taken jobs far below their level of education and experience.
Others have lost everything–homes, families and friends. A few of these have “gone postal” and become violent themselves toward the perpetrators.
Some have engaged in protracted legal struggles with their organizations, successfully or not, while some have become experts, speakers and writers about mobbing and turned their experiences into a new cause or career.
In my own case, I am grateful I found support and got perspective on the underlying reasons for the abuse heaped on me. But, no amount of understanding or detachment was enough to counter the impact of the toxic environment I was in. It began to affect my health, and I finally had to walk away.
Now, I have my own business in the conflict resolution field, and offer training, classes, conflict coaching, and mediation to help individuals and organizations understand and deal with workplace communication, conflict, bullying and mobbing.
If you are being mobbed—take heart and take action.
If you believe you are being mobbed or are at risk of becoming a mobbing victim, you are not alone. It is important to name what is happening and understand that you are not responsible for the campaign against you.
Finding other sources of spiritual strength and validation, and getting support outside of the workplace are crucial. Documenting everything that happens can sometimes be helpful, but is rarely enough to stop the campaign of harassment, no matter how blatant.
Please take note: HR departments and unions need to be approached with extreme caution, because staff rarely have sufficient training to deal effectively with this issue.
I’ve listed some online resources below, including some sources for this article.
Finally, be willing to walk away
If, like me, you find that no attitude shift or action is enough to let you feel safe, sane, and healthy at work, I urge you to find the courage to leave. No job is worth the emotional, professional, and physical devastation which mobbing can create.
Online Mobbing Resources:
The Mobbing Portal—many articles and resources.
Workplace Mobbing: Individual and Family Health Consequences Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry 2007.
Workplace Mobbing in Academe—Kenneth Westerhues’ website with many articles, videos, and other resources.
The content and development of mobbing at work Heinz Leymann
Women and Workplace Mobbing—Dr. Jocelynne Scutt
At the Mercy of the Mob–Kenneth Westerhues
© Lorraine Segal www.ConflictRemedy.com