When Bullying Turns Into Mobbing, Everyone in the Workplace Loses

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An extraordinarily dimwitted New York business owner will have to shell out at least $250,000 for hurling the n-word at his employee during a reported “four-minute rant.”

The owner, himself black, apparently thought this would be OK.

Idiot.

The story showed up in a LinkedIn group, where a white member wanted to know why it’s unacceptable for white people to use the n-word when so many black people use it so freely.

(Now bear with me. I promise you this posting is not about to devolve into a tirade about crappy U.S. race relations. We’ll be back in a corporate office in one New York minute. Honest.)

35% of workers have experienced bullying directly

So, I tried to explain why to this member, but it was obvious from his responses that he wasn’t listening. And his lack of listening felt like a dismissal of the realities of the very people whom he purported to want to understand with his inquiry.

And that reminded me of a fabulous conversation I had this week with Dr. Maureen Duffy, a family therapist and author of Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Work-place Aggression and Bullying. (And we’re back. See? I told you.)

The book is planned for release in late December, and I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of friend to the HR community if I didn’t recommend that each and every practitioner read this book. It is wonderful.

According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35 percent of American workers have experienced bullying directly. I’m in that percentage. I’ve been mobbed and bullied, so I know first-hand the destructive effects of this phenomenon.

But what is mobbing, how does it differ from bullying, and what the heck does any of it have to do with that bone-headed manager in New York and the guy who’s upset that white people can still get in trouble for using the n-word?

All of those are very good questions (if I don’t say so myself), and the answers as are follows.

Mobbing vs. Bullying

In her book, Dr. Duffy provides a clear distinction between bullying and mobbing. In a nutshell, mobbing takes an organization, and bullying does not.

Generally, bullying involves one or more bullies who abuse an individual without the weight and the backing, if you will, of the organization. An individual is mobbed, however, with the sanction and often active cooperation of senior leadership.

When an employee is mobbed, the objective is to remove him from the organization, but not through any reasonable means. Instead, the employee/target is marginalized within the organization through a process known as “de-legitimization,” which systemically strips the target of his professional accomplishments and his personal dignity.

The target, once lauded as a valuable employee, is now regarded as dirt. He is gossiped about. Lied about. Shut out from meetings. Dropped from memo distribution lists.

A wicked and cruel practice

In short, he is treated as a non-member of the organization and then is either fired or quits while the mob cheers.

What’s particularly disturbing about mobbing is that the target’s performance is never the real issue. Instead, his “otherness,” relative to the culture of the organization, is the catalyst for the abuse. (I’m telling you, read the book.)

While mobbing may (and often does) include some bullying behavior, it is much more than bullying, which in and of itself can be devastating.

Mobbing is wicked and cruel and happens far too often than we’d like to admit.

And now I’m back to that white guy who doesn’t want to listen.

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“We have seen the enemy …”

Because that’s us, HR ladies and gentlemen, when we’re confronted by a hurting and confused target of bullying or mobbing in the workplace. We’re the ones who aren’t listening. We ask a question as though we really care to hear the answer, but then we don’t actually listen up.

A 2007 study sponsored by WBI and conducted by Zogby Research Services found that 44 percent of the time employers did nothing when bullying was reported, and 18 percent of the time the employer made the situation worse.

Whether our fingers-in-the-ears routine is fueled by a knee jerk reaction to protect our employers, a lack of empathy, a lack of knowledge, stubbornness, inexperience, fear, all of that, none of that, or something else entirely, it’s a problem that needs correcting, and fast.

I’m an optimist. I wouldn’t be an HR professional if I weren’t. I believe that people and organizations can change for the better.

But when it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, truly, I feel like weeping. The situation looks pretty hopeless.

But change IS possible

And so I asked Dr. Duffy, “How can organizations that are so dysfunctional as to allow this type of behavior in the first place ever be open to change?”

And she told me she’s an optimist, too — that she couldn’t be a therapist if she weren’t. And that one way change can come is if HR professionals start listening, and If HR professionals be what she called a “wedge.”

That thin wedge disrupts the workplace culture just a tad, just enough to get somebody else to listen. Without preconceived notions. Without a belief that certain things just can’t be true. Without a belief that it’s okay to mistreat a fellow worker.

Dr. Duffy believes that the Healthy Workplace Bill will eventually pass within the various states, and I sure hope she’s right and that I live to see it.

Most of us will spend many, many hours of our lives at work. Work is meaningful. Work brings a sense of community and belonging. Work shouldn’t hurt. (Yes, cliché and all, I went there.)

Vow to make the situation better

As HR professionals, we talk a lot about making a positive impact on our organizations and being seen as partners and such. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is one area in which we can make a huge impact, if we can find the courage to do it.

Workplace aggression costs millions in legal fees, turnover, unscheduled absences, direct medical costs, and the costs of workplace accidents caused by stress. It hurts workers and organizations.

So the next time you’re presented with a complaint about workplace bullying or some other form of aggression, please listen, and then vow to do something that makes the situation better and not worse — for all our sakes.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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5 Comments on “When Bullying Turns Into Mobbing, Everyone in the Workplace Loses

  1. I was bullied and mobbed by HR and others at my last workplace. I won’t be at all surprised if someday I’m watching the news and find out that a very serious act of workplace violence has occurred there. I will gladly talk to the police about the history of HR physical aggression at this organization (it didn’t just happen to me) and this company will finally be exposed in the media.

    1. Dear Jobless_and Jaded:

      I’m VERY sorry to hear your story. It’s amazing to me how many people aren’t interested in this topic, but I’m going to keep talking about it, because the effects of workplace bullying and mobbing are devastating to many.

      Of course, I don’t wish your former employer any harm, but in her book, Dr. Duffy (and her coauthor Len Sperry, I should add) revisit the famous post office case of Thomas McIlvane and conclude that he was mobbed. McIlvane apparently had some psychological issues, and I’m not condoning his actions. However mobbing can push certain people over the edge.

  2. Once a worker recognises dysfunction in a workplace the best tip is to get out as quickly as possible and begin thinking of a better place to work instead of wasting time and energy begging for changes that some immature and irresponsible people are incapable of doing as they profit from putting someone else down to make themselves feel more powerful. Leave them to argue with the air, and be prepared for them to track you down and be very angry that you dared to leave. Read about domestic violence and be aware that the most dangerous time for the target is when they leave as the aggression tends to escalate as they lose control of the punching bag they needed to deflect from their won problems and inner turmoil and distress. The good news is that you can find somewhere safe and pleasant to work, and like any relationship it is worth shopping around before you settle. Having been a target of both bullies and mobbing, it never ceases to amaze me that people can treat someone so shabbily and then appear surprised when that person exits and want them back to attack. Any workplace that demonises those who chose to leave and work elsewhere is behaving like a possessive and abusive partner or totalitarian state that chooses to deny a person the basic right to be treated with dignity and respect and freedom of movement. They only hunt down the best as they also need the very one that they abuse to serve them. Bullying and mobbing teaches you to be more self-reliant and resourceful, and can be a blessing in disguise if you survive the experience as you will have developed extra skills and inner strength to fight against mob mentality and develop an independent voice. Mobs lose their conscience and reason. Consider the brutality of the concentration camp officers and you become less inclined to be swayed by group think and learn to value independent thinking and individual difference more as it dilutes the power of the mob and aims to bring in morality, empathy and reason. Those who personalise workplaces as if they are married to them, and resent workers who leave or challenge abuse and exploitation, have serious underlying problems and weak characters. Be careful before you sign up to “the mob”. Better to be a vilified scapegoat than pander to the narcissistic drive of any group that demands to be perceived as wonderful and perfect and beyond criticism or improvement. God is an ideal model not an actual person, and those who mistake themselves for god are delusional and dangerous.

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