by C. T. Wuerker, Contributed to Healthy Workplace Advocates 4/7/15
Workplace mobbing is the persecution and victimization of a worker by a group within the organization.
In mobbing, the victim is “disparaged and belittled by perpetrators who are acting within the legitimacy of the
organizational domain.” (Duffy & Sperry 2012, xi) Mobbing involves perpetrators who are comprised
of leaders and followers, the victim (usually one) also called the target, the witnesses also called bystanders, and the organizational
members who have the power and status to stop the mobbing but choose not to do so. These are also called
“the organization.” The organization either turns a blind eye or actively participates in the mobbing. (Duffy
& Sperry 2012, xi) Most researchers distinguish between workplace bullying and workplace mobbing by
saying that in bullying, the perpetrator is an individual whereas in mobbing, the perpetrator is a group. But
Duffy and Sperry add to their definition that in mobbing, the perpetrator group recruits management to add legitimacy and
power to their construction of the victim as unworthy to be a member of the workplace. So according to
Duffy and Sperry, if bullying is perpetrated by a group within the workplace but does not include management, then it is still
not mobbing. Other theorists do not agree with this definition. Duffy and Sperry also
distinguish between bullying and mobbing in that, in bullying, (generally) one perpetrator commits a series of aggressive
and damaging acts to harm the victim. The perpetrator has the aim of constructing the victim as an incompetent
employee so that the victim’s cries for help are ignored. In contrast, in mobbing, the perpetrators
are bent on constructing the victim as unstable, or immoral, or weird, psychologically damaged, or less than a legitimate
member of the workplace. There is more character assassination in mobbing than in bullying.
Also, since bullying usually involves just one perpetrator, there need not be gossip and innuendo. However,
in mobbing, since the object is to force the unwanted employee out of the workplace, and this is done by a group, then gossip
and innuendo are an essential tool for the group to construct a grotesque
narrative about the victim.
The first major study of workplace mobbing, though this term was not yet used, was done by Carroll Brodsky
(The Harassed Worker, 1976). Early precursor studies in ethology were done by Konrad Lorenz (1963,
1965, 1968) on animal mobbing. The first major researcher in workplace mobbing who ran a clinic and published
his findings was Heinz Leymann. His work was in German and Swedish. He did his major
work in the 1980s and 1990s. He coined the term ‘mobbing’ and described it as “psychoterror”
and described it as “hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly
towards one individual.” (Davenport et al. 1999, 22) The first book in the English language on workplace mobbing to
appear was that by Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott in 1999. The finest scholarly book in the English language
is Duffy and Sperry 2012. There have been a few dozen journal articles in academic journals in the last
25 years, but they are not generally accessible to the public. Whereas workplace bullying is beginning
to hit the mainstream, workplace mobbing is still little understood by the general public.
According to Leymann, mobbing generally occurs in
five phases (Davenport et al. 1999, 38):
Phase 1: A critical incident sets the
mobbing dynamic in motion.
The mobbers engage in aggressive acts which deliver steady doses of aggression and render the victim powerless to retaliate.
The victim instead is forced to absorb this aggression. The mobbers engage in gossip and innuendo and construct
the victim as ‘the other’, an outcast, a fraud, or otherwise unworthy to be a member of the workplace.
These assaults continue until the victim is worn down and finally files a complaint with management. However,
instead of extending help to the victim, management either neglects the victim or positively supports the persecutors and
withholds support from the victim. If the victim does not get satisfaction from her management, she often
goes over her management’s heads and lodges a complaint to HR. What she does not realize is that
HR works for management; HR’s view of its own role is that its job is to protect the organization (applied
in this case, the perpetrators!) from her, not to protect her from some imagined ‘mobbing.’
So now the trap is sprung. She is in bondage.
Phase 4: In this phase,
the victim is branded as “difficult” or “mentally ill.” This has the effect of
depriving the victim of any legitimacy in their cries for help. The victim is then locked in a torture
chamber where the perpetrators can continue to deliver assaults and the victim cannot fight back.
Phase 5: Expulsion.
Finally the victim is either terminated, or quits, or has a nervous breakdown, or ‘goes postal’.
If the victim goes postal, that is, acts out from the enormous stress and degradation, the final insult and injury
is that the victim is portrayed as a “disgruntled employee.” Generally the news media do not
dig deep enough to find out that the “disgruntled employee” was in fact a victim. This becomes
a classic case of ‘blaming the victim.’
Leymann developed a typology of mobbing (Davenport et al. 1999, 36-7):
Impact on self-expression and the way communication
(1) Your superior restricts the opportunity for you to express yourself. (2) You
are interrupted constantly. (3) Colleagues/coworkers restrict your opportunity to express yourself.
(4) You are yelled at and loudly scolded. (5) Your work is constantly criticized. (6)
There is constant criticism about your private life. (7) You are terrorized on the telephone.
(8) Oral threats are made. (9) Written threats are sent. (10) Contact is denied
through looks are gestures. (11) Contact is denied through innuendoes.
Attacks on one’s social relations
(1)People do not speak with you anymore.
(2) You cannot talk to anyone, i.e. access to others is denied. (3) You are put into a workspace
that is isolated from others. (4) Colleagues are forbidden to talk with you. (5) You
are treated as if you are invisible.
Attacks on your reputation
(1)People talk badly behind your back.
(2) Unfounded rumors are circulated. (3) You are ridiculed. (3) You are treated
as if you are mentally ill. (4) You are forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation/examination.
(5) A handicap is ridiculed. (6) People imitate your gestures, walk, voice, to ridicule you.
(7) Your political or religious beliefs are ridiculed. (8) Your private life is ridiculed.
(9) Your nationality is ridiculed. (10) You are forced to do a job that affects your self-esteem.
(11) Your efforts are judged in a wrong or demeaning way. (12) Your decisions are always questioned.
(13) You are called demeaning names. (14) Sexual innuendoes.
Attacks on the quality of one’s professional and life situation
no special tasks for you. (2) Supervisors take away assignments, so that you cannot even invent new tasks
to do. (3) You are given meaningless jobs to carry out. (4) You are given tasks that
are below your qualifications. (5) You are continually given new tasks. (6) You are given tasks that affect
your self-esteem. (7) You are given tasks that are way beyond your qualifications, in order treated as if you are invisible.
on your reputation
(1)People talk badly behind your back. (2) Unfounded rumors
are circulated. (3) You are ridiculed. (3) You are treated as if you are mentally ill.
(4) You are forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation/examination. (5) A handicap is ridiculed.
(6) People imitate your gestures, walk, voice, to ridicule you. (7) Your political or religious
beliefs are ridiculed. (8) Your private life is ridiculed. (9) Your nationality is ridiculed.
(10) You are forced to do a job that affects your self-esteem. (11) Your efforts are judged in a
wrong or demeaning way. (12) Your decisions are always questioned. (13) You are called
demeaning names. (14) Sexual innuendoes.
on the quality of one’s professional and life situation
(1)There are no special tasks for
you. (2) Supervisors take away assignments, so that you cannot even invent new tasks to do.
(3) You are given meaningless jobs to carry out. (4) You are given tasks that are below your qualifications.
(5) You are continually given new tasks. (6) You are given tasks that affect your self-esteem.
(7) You are given tasks that are way beyond your qualifications, in order to discredit you. (8)
Causing general damages that create financial costs to you, damaging your home or workplace.
Direct attacks on a person’s health
(1)You are forced to do a physically strenuous job. (2) Threats of physical violence
are made. (3) Light violence is used to threaten you. (4) Physical abuse. (5) Outright
Mobbing can be categorized in terms
of the degree of damage it can cause (Davenport et al. 1999, 39):
Mobbing of the first
degree: The victim resists, escapes at an early stage, and
is fully rehabilitated at the same workplace, say, in another department, or in another workplace.
Mobbing of the second degree: The victim is unable
to resist, and is unable to escape immediately, and so suffers temporary or prolonged mental and/or physical disability, and
has difficulty re-entering the workforce.
Mobbing of the third
degree: The victim is so damaged that
they cannot re-enter the workforce. Rehabilitation is unlikely unless a very specialized protocol
Davenport et al. (1999, 41) listed ten key factors of the mobbing syndrome:
1) Assaults on the dignity, integrity, credibility and professional
competence of employees;
2) Negative, humiliating, intimidating, abusive malevolent, and controlling communication;
3) Committed directly, or
indirectly, in subtle or obvious ways;
4) Perpetrated by one or more staff members—“vulturing;”
in a continued, multiple, and systematic fashion, over some time;
6) Portraying the victimized person as being at fault;
7) Engineered to discredit, confuse, intimidate,
isolate , and force the person into submission;
8) Committed with the intent to force the person out;
9) Representing the removal from the workplace
as the victim’s choice;
10) Not recognized, misinterpreted, ignored, tolerated, encouraged, or even instigated by the management
of the organization.
According to the 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby Survey, 37% of all workers
will experience workplace bullying at some point of their work life. Another 12% will at least be witnesses
or bystanders to workplace bullying. It is likely that a subset of the phenomena studied by the WBI/Zogby
Survey is workplace mobbing. (See page on this website for updated 2014 Zogby Survey results)
Leymann found in 1990 that at any given time,
3.5% of the population in Sweden, or 154,000 out of the 4.4M workforce, were mobbing victims at any time. Leymann
also attributed some 15% of suicides in Sweden to workplace mobbing. (Davenport et al. 1999, 25)
A study by Chen, Hwu, Kung, Chin, and Wang (2008) found that of a cross-section
of 230 nurses, aides, and clerks at a psychiatric hospital, 25% reported being a victim of workplace harassment or violence
in the past year. Another 50% reported witnessing workplace harassment or violence in the past year; over
60% had personally experienced some form of workplace harassment or violence during their employment.
A study by Niedhammer et al. (2006) found that of a sample of 3132 men and 4562
women working in SE France, 8.8% of men and 10.7% of women reported exposure to “bullying” (using Leymann’s
definition of mobbing) in the previous 12 months.
In a study by Quine (2003) of 1000
junior hospital physicians, 37% reported having been bullied in the previous 12 months, and 69% reported being witnesses.
A study by Yildirim and Yildirim (2007) of 505 nurses in Turkey found that 86.5%
reported exposure to workplace mobbing in the previous 12 months.
The above studies are cited in
Duffy and Sperry (2012) pp. 131-141. In total, Duffy and Sperry cite 27 studies. I have
only cited studies with mobbing-related statistics.
Workplace bullying is typically triggered by the feelings of inadequacy
in the bully. The bully frequently feels threatened by the competence of the target and so wages a campaign
of bullying to portray the target as incompetent. This gives the bully a feeling of relative power and
Usually, mobbing is triggered by some difference found in the victim. It can be the victim’s
appearance, a possession of an accent, a significantly superior work ethic, a difference in education, a difference in political views, a difference in vocabulary, a difference in culture, a difference in attitudes.
In other words, the difference does not legitimate a mobbing. Mobbing involves a significant component
of clannishness. Frequently mobbing is waged against a superior employee. However,
if that difference is not a legally protected difference (e.g. race, religion, ADA status, etc.) then the victim
does not have legal protection. This employee may be resisting moral lapses which are a part of
the culture of the workplace. Or, the victim may be fastidious about carrying out the officially
stated rules or objectives of the organization, but most of the members of the organization have long since recognized that
those rules are no longer the operative rules. In other words, the victim may not recognize the
‘double-bind’ nature of some of the organizational norms. The divide between the victim’s
application of the norms vs. the group’s application of the norms, motivate the development of them/us perceptions.
These perceptions become a precursor to the “critical incident” of Leymann’s Phase One above, and
intensifies as the campaign of unethical communication progresses.
Another possible cause is explained in Wyatt & Hare 1997, 68. According to Wyatt & Hare, 95% of
all workplaces are non-collaborative and therefore are abusive at some level. This abuse is sometimes blatant,
but more often is so pervasive and is so deeply programmed into the organizational norms that the abuses become unconscious.
In abusive workplaces, workers survive by being in denial, and by entering what Wyatt and Hare call a “work trance”
when they walk in the door at the start of shift. Nevertheless, workers still experience and absorb this
abuse. When the abuse becomes sufficiently toxic, workers will need to ‘offload’ their anger
and aggression, sometimes by acting out. Since workers cannot express anger toward their uplines, they
may sometimes seek out a scapegoat to carry off the negative feeling of the workplace. So then, scapegoating
becomes a way for frustrated workers to cast off frustration and experience a catharsis. I do not see any
place where Wyatt and Hare explicitly use the term “mobbing,” and I do not find “mobbing” in the index,
but then this was written only in 1997. But what they are describing is indeed mobbing.
Another possible cause of mobbing
relates to narcissism or psychopathy. As background, the standard measure of psychopathy is the Hare Psychopathy
Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) (q.v.). For a person to score high enough to qualify as a psychopath, they must
have strong components of both narcissism and antisocial tendencies. It is found that if a narcissist is
successful in rising to a managerial level (which is frequently the case), he will nearly always surround himself with sycophants
in order to secure narcissistic supply (see Vaknin 2007; Babiak and Hare 2006). These supporters play the
role of enablers or codependents and give rise to corporate narcissism (q.v. David Thomas’ work in www.winning-teams.com). A narcissist or a psychopath-as-narcissist will value
or validate people in his organization who buy into the ‘reality’ he has forced onto the organization but devalue
or “annihilate” anyone who objects to the reality he forces on the workplace or “pathological narcissistic
space” (Vaknin 2007). In other words, a narcissist validates anyone who will give narcissistic
supply by validating his narcissistic fantasy, and will fly into a rage against anyone who (perhaps even unwittingly) withholds
narcissistic supply by deflating his narcissistic fantasy. One of the methods used by a narcissistic or
psychopathic manager can be to incite mobbing against an employee to discredit and drive out any detractors (see Babiak and
Hare 2006). And so, mobbing can be due to ‘spontaneous combustion’ or it can be incited by
a narcissistic or psychopathic employee or boss.
The 27 studies cited in Duffy and Sperry list the following
health-related impacts of workplace mobbing: depression, phobic syndromes, anxiety syndromes, hypertension, heart disease,
eating disorders, drug addiction, PTSD symptoms, psychological distress, decreased job satisfaction, suicidal ideation, feeling
tired, stress headaches, excessive eating or loss of appetite, gastro-intestinal problems, extreme sadness and crying, life
away from work negatively impacted, insomnia, nightmares, obsessive thinking, stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, high blood
pressure, blurred vision, respiratory infections, hives, heart palpitations, chest pains, panic attacks, sudden death, depression,
joint suicide, homicidal rage. It should be seen that workplace mobbing negatively impacts both mental
and physical health of its victims. According to Duffy and Sperry (2012, 172), workplace mobbing results
in “totalizing losses:” loss of job, possible loss of career, loss of health and retirement benefits, loss of
professional reputation and re-employability, loss of income and finances, loss of personal and professional identity, loss
of family equanimity, loss of work relationships, loss of health, loss of a sense of security about the future, loss of confidence
and loss of belief in fairness and justice, and sometimes a loss of life.
should be noted that it is only with Leymann’s articles (ca. 1980s and 1990s) that the existence of workplace mobbing
as a subset of workplace bullying, or as a separate type of workplace aggression, has been established as an area of scholarly
Workplace mobbing has been outlawed
in France, Sweden, and several other Western European countries; in several Canadian provinces, and in
Workplace mobbing and workplace bullying are still legal in each of the States of the U.S. There
are several reasons for this. One reason is that a law against bullying/mobbing
is seen by the business community as being a threat to the legal doctrine of at-will employment. The doctrine
of at-will employment says that employers are legally not required to have a reason for terminating employees.
A strong anti-bullying or anti-mobbing law could then be used by a disgruntled employee, it is thought, to prevent
a legitimate termination by raising the spectre of legal consequences.
A second reason for the hesitation by the states from passing an anti-bullying/ anti-mobbing law is the claim made by the
business community that bullying/mobbing are already covered by the anti-harassment laws (e.g. sexual harassment, anti-discrimination
laws). But it should be noted that mobbing and bullying are normally triggered by factors that are not
A third reason why it has been so difficult to pass an anti-bullying/anti-mobbing
law in the U.S. has been that the legal threshold for general harassment has been set unreasonably high, according to Yamada
(2004). Indeed, there are cases where an agent or his employer can be sued for a general harassment, not
covered by the anti-discrimination laws. But the legal threshold has been set so high that the victim would
have to be subjected to conduct which is outrageous to a ‘reasonable person.’ In case law,
that legal threshold is rarely attained. However, it has been observed by researchers that most
bullying and mobbing are carried out in at a lower level, or in a clandestine manner, within the existing policies and procedures
of the organization. (see Abdenndur 2000) The victim is injured and ejected from the
workplace more frequently by a process of wearing down by means of an unrelenting stream of political and psychological assaults
at the rate of several per week over a period, on average of about 21 months.
Workplace mobbing is emerging as an established area of academic research
in workplace aggression. It is often clandestine in character, and is usually kept hidden by the rules
of engagement, by a complicit management, and a complicit HR. Because of the devastating health effects
of mobbing on the victim and collateral damage to the employer’s interests, the eradication of mobbing is a public health
issue and calls for legal protections.
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