The Manager’s Guide to Workplace Mobbing
by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.
Joan, a high tech mid-level manager, faced a serious dilemma. An employee named Tom reported a pattern of harassment at work that seemed almost unbelievable. He said people were sabotaging his computer with porn, leaving rotten food on his desk, ignoring him when he asked questions, not informing him about important meeting changes and other disturbing behaviors. Joan wondered, “am I dealing with a disturbed and paranoid person, or do I have a workplace mobbing situation going on here?”
What is Mobbing?
Workplace mobbing is a pattern of bullying behavior, committed by a group of people, directed toward a single target. This behavior often falls within legally acceptable limits, but poses damaging consequences for individuals and organizations. Mobbing behavior often involves multiple escalating examples of social isolation and can lead to violence or other criminal acts by perpetrators and/or victims. Typically the victim feels powerless to stop the hostile behavior and they often develop symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression that can lead to disability claims, emotional breakdowns and physical illness. The term mobbing was first coined by animal behavior expert, Konrad Lorenz, who observed birds and animals attacking their own kind. He saw mobbing behavior as stemming from the Darwinian struggle for survival.
If you’re a manager, you probably already spend almost a third of your work time dealing with human animals struggling with conflict. A workplace mobbing issue can consume even more time. You might feel tempted to ignore the issue and hope it resolves itself. Don’t. Typically these problems worsen over time if you fail to apply strong leadership, discipline and investigative skills to the problem.
How Does Mobbing Start?
Mobbing usually starts after a perceived conflict does not get worked out to the satisfaction of the participants. The un-managed conflict can quickly spiral into a pattern of hostility toward the victim. Sometimes the conflict can start with a distorted perception of favorable treatment toward the victim that provokes the others to target that person. For example, one very shy employee named Dan always left two hours before everyone else in the company. This became a focus of intense gossip on the shop floor. In fact Dan regularly arrived three hours before everyone else, and had been working overtime. No one even bothered to ask Dan. This mobbing situation eventually led to Dan leaving on stress disability and a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the company.
Is This Mobbing or Paranoia?
Victims of mobbing can sound paranoid. Typically by the time you learn about the problem, the victim may have been an insomniac for months with stomach problems and anxiety. They can sound over-emotional, distraught and unbalanced. They often feel embarrassed and have difficulty even talking about the problem. It’s easier to assume that the majority must be right. If everyone on the shop floor dislikes the victim, he or she must have done something to deserve that treatment. Whether you’re dealing with mobbing, paranoia, or mobbing and paranoia, it’s best to treat the victim with dignity, courtesy and respect. Gather information, ask for specific details, and tell the victim that you will take action and follow up on this information. Provide the victim with an estimated timeline and let that person know about any changes in the timeline. Good communication can stimulate hopefulness and prevent escalation.
How Can I Prevent Mobbing?
When you manage petty conflicts early you can prevent them from growing into Frankenstein monsters. Conflicts can occur over stupid issues like: food in the refrigerator, the frequency of wastebasket dumping, perfume allergies, and more. Managers, busy with “real work” tend to let people fight these issues out themselves. It’s best to have clear grievance policies and procedures, regularly communicate those procedures, and enforce them as written. We’ve heard too many times that managers don’t follow procedures and so the employees distrust the grievance process. So pay attention to early signs of conflict, and intervene respectfully, even if no one has filed a formal grievance.
What do I do Now That I Have a Mobbing Problem?
Once mobbing takes hold within an organization, an atmosphere of distrust usually prevails. This distrust of management and/or the rank and file, can lead to cynicism and anger when management tries to solve the problem. If this is the case you must get some outside help. Consult with professionals like us. Psychotherapists can help you manage the conflict, train employees, and coach executives. If you worry that mental illness or violence potential exists, consult with someone from The Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. Check with your legal department to evaluate risks and responsibilities. These professionals can provide safe processes to help you make the best decisions for your company and the people with whom you work.
Before you get outside help, gather information to help you organize and identify your needs. Information should include:
- Any concrete evidence of the mobbing.
- The history of the conflict(s).
- Participants names and backgrounds.
- What steps have been taken to try to address the problem?
- What discipline/reward options have you tried?
A workplace mobbing conflict can take months to resolve. Many conflicts never resolve, but they can be managed so that they don’t interfere with the health and well-being of the workplace. Set your sights on a long term solution. It helps to set a cultural norm that does not tolerate hostile behavior. If your leadership shuts down hostile behavior early, and models respectful behavior, you can prevent the biggest mobbing problems. It takes work to dig out of the deep hole of a hostile work environment, but the benefits to the people and the company are priceless.
Art courtesy of Guido Reni.