How to Combat Workplace Mobbing

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

John got to work a little earlier so he could finish his report at a research institution before the rest of the staff arrived.  As he entered the windowed office he was surprised to see two colleagues leave his work station.  He touched his computer.  It felt warm.  He booted it up and on the screen appeared violent pornography.  John looked up from his desk.  The two colleagues remained silent, staring at their computer screens.  “What the hell!” John exclaimed.

The next day he arrived early again.  This time his computer felt cold.  He entered his password and nothing.  “Damn,” he said.  “They changed my password.”  Over an 18 month period John’s tires were slashed, files from his computer were deleted or changed, a colleague was given credit for his research, memos about meetings were emailed to him with a different time than the rest of the group.  John, a victim of mobbing, eventually left on stress disability with severe symptoms of anxiety.

John’s troubles began when his supervisor started coming to work drunk.  He talk to the supervisor, recommended counseling or AA and offered sympathy.  Mike, the supervisor, enjoyed happy hours with the rest of the staff.  John became the joke of the happy hour fun.   Soon they would all giggle about the latest trick they could play on the boring, do-gooder John.

Depending on how researchers define it, between 18% and 70% of the U.S. workforce has experienced some form of workplace mobbing or bullying.  Some researchers use the terms bullying and mobbing interchangeably and others define the terms differently.  I think mobbing is different from bullying due to differences in the characteristics of the victim and the abuser.  Most of us are familiar with the school yard bully.  This tough guy usually picks on the weak or weird kid and may have a group of thugs who participate with him.  Mobbing victims in the workplace tend to be strong, creative and envied by the perpetrators.  The mobbing behavior targets victims who often have great value to the organization, but pose some threat to the mob boss(es).  With intimidation, threats, exclusion and humiliation, the mob neutralizes the competency of the victim.  Victims develop anxiety, insomnia, poor concentration, gastro-intestinal problems and heart disease.

Mobbing and bullying thrive in a leadership vacuum.  Weak, corrupt, overworked or incompetent management form fertile ground for dysfunctional mobs to grow.  If you think your workplace has a mobbing problem contact us.  If senior management provides training, conflict resolution, discipline and sets a zero tolerance policy for this behavior, the workplace can recover.

If you believe mobbing is happening in your workplace, act quickly.  Many people wait, hoping it will stop, or won’t get any worse.  Unfortunately mobbing usually gets worse over time unless someone intervenes to stop it.  If you see your work group excluding someone, using gossip or jokes to single someone out, say something like, “I don’t think any of us would like to be talked about that way,” or “hey, that’s not cool.  We have to invite everyone.”  Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Often, all it takes is one individual to stand up for what’s right to stop what Phillip Zimbardo, Ph.D. calls “the Lucifer Effect.”  Dr. Zimbardo offers some great advice on how to resist the social pressure that can make good people do very bad things.

Many victims feel embarrassed talking about the humiliating treatment they receive at work.  Some have told me they fear being seen as petty, or paranoid.  One woman wondered if she was getting paranoid when she began to worry that her tormentors could follow her home and hurt her family.  If you believe you are a victim of mobbing here are a few suggestions to help you stay healthy and fight back:

  • Keep a detailed, dated record of all harassment.  Some, but not all mobbing behavior is illegal.  Detailed records can help you protect yourself and your interests.
  • Talk with family, friends and trusted work colleagues to develop a plan to attack the problem.
  • Report the problem to your H.R. department.
  • Make an appointment with your employee assistance professional.
  • If you suffer from stress symptoms like insomnia and gastro-intestinal complaints see your medical doctor.
  • Get a referral from your M.D. or insurance company for a competent counselor.  This can prevent the development of more serious symptoms and provide another ally in your fight.
  • Practice daily stress management including:  exercise, meditation, healthy eating and social relationships.
  • Avoid forming or joining an opposing mob.  In basketball the retaliatory foul is usually the one that gets called (Thank you Jay Schneider for that observation).  Don’t try to solve a problem by using the same corrupt tactics.  It leaves you even more vulnerable.

If race, age, gender or other title VII protections are at issue, you may have some legal muscle.  Whistleblower laws might apply as well.  However, many mobbing cases fall between the cracks of legal and personnel policy protection.  In that case you can still demand better treatment.  Get help, practice stress management, develop a plan and don’t give up.