Mobbing in the workplace


Bullying, psychological terror or aggression, hostile workplace behavior, workplace trauma, incivility, emotional violence resulting in emotional injury affecting the target’s mental and physical health.

Mobbing is an English word, but one I first came across being used by non Anglophones to describe the subtle difference between covert emotional abuse in the work place by a group,  from more overt and recognisable bullying,  which can be carried out by individuals.

Mobbing is  emotional abuse by stealth in an organisation. It manifests itself as “ganging up” by co-workers, superiors or subordinates to force someone out of the workplace through rumour, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, isolation,  undermining and discrediting. The result will be a negative impact on the target’s emotional, psychological and physical well-being.     It is generally malicious non-sexual, non racial general harassment.

Mobbing  is not an isolated incident or the type conflict or disagreement that often arises in offices which can be moderated. It is not always highly visible although rudeness and shouting can be components.    Mobbing is a sustained war of attrition on the target,  with  focus on a specific vulnerability to generate malaise and conflict.  It can be employer on employee, coworker on coworker and even subordinate on superior abuse.

Ringer leader

The mob usually has a ringleader who drives the bullying “programme.”  Leaders can be both extroverted and introverted,  with the latter considered  more dangerous, as  their  actions are under-cover.  Sometimes while appearing  to be publicly agreeable, they direct others from behind the scenes to perpetrate the “mobbing ”  on their behalf.

There are a number of reasons why a person instigates mobbing.  It is always associated with their own feelings of insecurity. They might feel threatened by the skills, success, popularity, age or even the appearance of the target. There maybe a  Machiavellian component of power seeking.  Sometimes more complex clinically identifiable personality disorders are involved.

Bystander syndrome

Ringleaders  engage, manipulate  or recruit the rest of the mob to support or carry out mobbing activities.   These can range from passing on and carrying out instructions to colleagues or reports,  or circulating vicious rumours or gossip to undermine the target.   If the ring leader is senior,  the authority is legitimized.  The recruits comply because they fear becoming a target themselves  or they simply get a kick out of seeing other people suffer.  Others are more passive bystanders who  enable the mobbing situation,  by  failing to take action against it, thus becoming complicit and endorsing it.

One case study

Gabriella  works in a small NGO in Brussels.  Multi lingual and highly qualified, with post-graduate certification in her speciality,  she has  as 20 years’  experience running complex international research assignments and teams. In the two years she has been in her position she has become increasingly isolated in her office,  with only one of her co-workers willing to talk to her on a daily basis.  The office intern has been instructed not to  respond to her instructions.  Every aspect of her work is micro-managed  and  despite the size of the office,  all communication is via email ,  very often aggressive in tone.

The departmental head has downgraded the content of her role and using the office manager as an interlocutor she has been given a series of projects normally associated with entry leve skills.   During a client presentation Gabriella  was stopped mid-way and replaced  in front of the audience by a  junior team member who was not familiar with the content.   She has been sent to cover conferences not relevant to the activities of the organization and requested to produce lengthy reports to tight deadlines.  These reports to date have not been read.

She has no job description or objectives and her requests to discuss the situation  and establish her goals with the office manager and senior  manager have been ignored. Gabriella’s queries on what has been going on have been labelled as a disruptive refusal to co-operate.

This  is “mobbing”.

Diagnosed with depression, Gabriella went on sick leave today. Should her next step be a lawyer? Can she even prove what has happened?

What do you think?  If you have any similar experiences  please share them.

21 responses to “Mobbing in the workplace

  1. I’ve had two coaching clients recently who have complained of mobbing. it was causing them a lot of pain. It is usually much more subtle than explicit bullying and harder to prove – both found their supervisors (I hesitate to use the word managers) seemed to be leading some kind of conspiracy to undermine them. It is very difficult to confront and requires the very confidence which the process has undermined. It tends to happen in organizations that are not well led nor well managed and where there is a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities.
    I found I was on the receiving end of it a few times when working as an independent management consultant. It made the work not only less enjoyable but also harder to do. But then of course to some extent you expected it and you had the financial reward – on top of that I suspect you don’t do that kind of work without starting out with your confidence pretty high. But even then there were days when it was hard to take.

    • Thanks Wendy for your comment. Yes I agree it is very hard for an outsider to be aware of it although I think it is usually very apparent to the individuals in an organization. What is hard is for the target to prove it and it can be a form of constructive dismissal. It is very damaging to the person and also the culture of any organisation which becomes toxic. That will not change until the leadership is replaced and even then it leaves a legacy.

  2. Bullying is bullying. It’s not real hard even early on to detect it. It’s a horrible severe attack on another human being and it reveals a real lack of stability…mental and emotional… on the part of those doing the bullying.
    As a business owner with never more than 20 employees and me being extremely sensitive to such harassment I watched closely for signs of such. It was seldom and rooted out efficiently and quickly.
    No person man or woman should enter the workplace without the confidence of handling such attacks. Oh it’s tough but…BUT it is essential that all those OUT in the midst of multiple work ethics or the lack thereof and personality differences should come on “ready” for such harassment. It’s not the answer but it’s the beginning of one and that’s a pretty good place to start.
    Every worker whoever, wherever “must” have some “kick-ass” in their personalities. As well self respect to the point of refusing to submit to takeing such auctions against themselves. One’s countenance and personas need be upheld, respected and stably put forth always.
    A career doesn’t have room for bully’s and the loss of self respect and self love that comes with working and living with bullying pays a heavy heavy price.
    Mobbing is serious “moshing.” It’s much worse but eventually through “moshing” one learns to defend oneself and overcome the negatives inherent in “moshing.” But “moshing” too can be quite the hassle…..till you figured it out and decide to overcome it’s negatives.
    We’re all responsible for ourselves and I believe with God’s help every situation is correctable and be turned into a benefit.

    • Thanks Steven – I think bullying can be quite hard to detect expecially when it’s covert, in which case it has to be sustained over a protracted period before it becomes apparent to others as a pattern of behaviour. By which time they are possibly complicit.

      I think it’s important that managers be educated to be on the look out for it – so excelllent that you make a point of it. The problem deepens when it is the manager who is the bully or the person’s authority is legitmized by seniority.

      I didn’t know the term ” moshing” I have to confess and had to look it up!

  3. Hi Dorothy ~ Stating the obvious, this kind of behaviour is appalling. And unfortunately, if it is allowed to go on unacknowledged it becomes part of the organizational culture.
    There was a time in my working life when I felt something of Gabriella’s experience, although perhaps not quite so severely. Nonetheless during that time I had the distinct feeling that no matter what I did, I was always going to “get it wrong”. It was a very disheartening time.
    And then I got mad. I think it was the anger that helped me get focused and stand up for myself in a way that demanded some kind of respect. It took work. It also took a while for people to see me with new eyes but eventually, they did.
    I’m not sure whether getting angry and confronting the collective bully is the answer. I suspect each of these situations has a certain uniqueness that requires a unique approach. What I do know for sure is that no one deserves such treatment. And, when faced with it, each of us has to decide how much of it we are willing to tolerate.
    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post!

    • Hi Gwyn – thanks for your sage words. What happens is individuals become ground down and if they have few options in today’s economic climate to change their job or leave the feeling of being trapped in an abusive environment becomes stronger. It is psychologically very damaging.

  4. Dorothy – Thought provoking piece. What is the gender of the perpetrators out of interest?

    • Hi Bill – thanks for your question. In this case the perpetrators were women and covert bullying is indeed quite often carried out by women. I looked into this some years ago in a series which started with Bitch or Bully? The Pink Elephant .

      However I have also know this tactic carried out by men – which was an abuse of authority which permeated through the ranks. Would you say generally it was gender related? Gabriella believes that to be the case by the way.

  5. Dorothy – what are the options for filing a formal complaint. If the organization is small then I would image there is no HR function -or perhaps that is carried out by the Office Manager who you say is part of the mobbing process. So that would be difficult. I find it hard to imagine there is no possibility to flag this up to someone.

    • Hi Geraldine – your analysis of the situation is correct. I have advised documenting the situation and the filing of a formal complaint as well but there appears to be no one neutral in the process. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Hi Dororthy. Thank you so for this piece. I too lived in Brussels and had a mobbing experience at which has dogged my life ever since. I also happen to be of an Asian/Muslim background and was verbally abused, degraded and humiliated on a daily basis. I had many rumours circulated about me which turned me into a figure of hate and justified all the abuse in their eyes. In fact the ring leader in my case even tried to convince me that I was suicidal and then spread that across the office. I came back to the UK and the rumours followed and spread around the office via my boss, making my life a misery once again. Once they realised their mistake I was then faced with pressure to remain quiet because they didn’t want to get into trouble. I isolated and undermined once again. So I had to leave that job and I have no idea what is coming next. Because of my anger and frustration I have now decided to begin a blog so I at least have an outlet for my feelings.

  7. Dorothy,
    Bullying is not limited to the human species. It appears to be perpetrated by the bigger animals against the smaller ones. The difference between humans as compared to dogs and apes, is that we have the capacity for conscious decision-making that can over-ride animal instincts.
    I heard the following story of workplace humiliation at a recent Mini-Mentoring event. It may provide some insight into the what motivates the bully.
    A woman, who was a top performer in her company, was unexpectedly called to the front of the room at an all company meeting to receive the gift of a solid gold watch for unexpected and outstanding sales. It was not an annual company award, but a special one-time recognition for what she had accomplished. The following year, company sales tanked due to lackluster new products and technical problems. At an all company public meeting, in a surprise announcement, the CEO called the same woman to the stage and demanded that she give back the gold watch. Is it any surprise that this company has continued to lose ground year over year?

    • Hi Anne – thanks for your comment. Your story is shocking and inline with outright public bullying. In the animal kingdom do other species “mob” ( ganging up, emotional abuse) the way humans do? That would be interesting to learn! Heading for Google!

    • Charlotte Johnson, DM/OL, MBA

      Anne, you touched on something that can be used if bullying or mobbing happens in the workplace, church or other social gathering places with others. Animals are creatures of habits. The habits of bullying or going along with the mob is a learned character trait, usually learned in the home environment. The good news is that animals can be trained, they have limited mental capacity and should be studied as a means of protecting oneself. Bullying and mobbing should be exposed, write about, and report it up the ranks. When you shed light on evil it loses its power. It may be uncomfortable for the person, but eventually organizational leader realize sooner or later that the toxicity caused by bullying can have a negative influence on productivity and eventually profitability. Highly intelligent humans have dominion over all animals.

  8. Being a victim of bullying seems to be the story of my life. From very early on (in school, from about 7 or 8 years old) I have been picked on, bullied and mobbed. And every time the answer to my complaints is “you ask for it” or “your own behaviour encourages this” or something along those lines. I have spent many hours with coaches and psychologists trying to change myself in order to stop the mistreatment. Until I realised that I can change all I want – I will never be able to stop the mobbing. I am now almost 34 years old, have been 1 year in a new job, after having been let go by a female boss who picked on me for 6 long years and encouraged others to do the same. The firing was based on clear lies, but even the workers’ union stepping in did not help – I had to be punished in her eyes. My body has reacted to the life-long stress by developing a diffuse neuropathic pain – anything that touches me, hurts. This I am treating with acupuncture and homeopathy – as regular medicine sees me as a “lost case”. In my new job all was well until the management changed: roles and assigments became unclear and this made everyone nervous – giving rise to gossip. Now the colleague I share an office with and with whom I have had the best of working relationships to date, thinks I have done something wrong – something that put her in a delicate position. I haven’t, but she still pretends I do not exist anymore, saying no more to me than the obligatory “good morning”. There is no HR, no manager I can go to. I have to deal with it myself – confront her with her behaviour. But I am afraid I will mess up – this situation has brought back so many unhappy memories that I know I will start crying. I am also afraid to voice my complaint. In the past, complaining has just marked me as a whiner and has never helped to stop the mobbing. I hardly talk to anyone about my past experiences – especially not to people related to my work and career. The harassment of so many years has put such a stigma on me that I cannot even post this with my real name…

    • Hi there – I’m sorry you had to go through those experiences. I suggest you join Annabel Kaye’s LinkedIn group Bullying and Harassment in the UK to get the support you deserve. Annabel is a trusted contact and an expert in this area. Courage.

      • Pallas Rubia

        Dorothy, thank you for that link. I will have a look at the group although I am not based in the UK.

      • Sorry – don’t know why I thought you were UK based – but that is a good group for anyone!
        Good luck!

      • Pallas Rubia

        Dear Dorothy, thanks again. I will be following that group as well as this thread. And I will take your assumption that I am based in the UK as a compliment to my English (as I am not a native English-speaker either)!

  9. I am experiencing exactly what was outlined in the case of Gabriella.

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