How to recognise this extreme form of workplace bullying

Gary Martin


written on January 19, 2018

Workplace mobbing may not be a new concept, but it’s on the increase. And the trauma group bullying causes the victim is devastating.

While many leaders and managers will be familiar with the concept of “workplace bullying,” fewer will have heard of the most extreme type of bullying – “workplace mobbing”.

This new concept in workplace bullying has been described by many as “bullying on steroids”.

That’s because unlike traditional bullying, which usually involves one perpetrator going out of their way to cause emotional harm to a victim, workplace mobbing or group bullying involves an employee enlisting the help of others to join in and act in a way that traumatises a particular co-worker in the office.

The term workplace mobbing was thought to be first described in the late 1980’s by a psychologist Heinz Layman from Sweden. Layman observed the effects of mobbing on an individual and suggested that the associated trauma was akin to someone who had been at the front lines of a battle zone.

A widespread phenomenon?

Many industry leaders agree that the incidence of mobbing is indeed on the rise. Some go as far as to say we have an epidemic of mobbing in our workplaces. They argue that in harsh economic operating conditions, where organisations are driven by the dollar, managers are more likely to ignore such behaviours and focus solely on what provides a return to shareholders – no matter what the carnage.

Others argue that it’s often a manager or supervisor who indirectly encourages mobbing in order to force a surplus employee to resign rather than pay the costs associated with forced redundancies.

The fact is, anyone can be mobbed – it’s not isolated to a particular type of co-worker. But targets are usually seen to be different from the organisational norm, and are often highly competent.

In a mobbing situation, a ringleader or “chief bully” typically incites a number of supporters to deploy numerous strategies to ultimately force the victim out of the organisation. Tactics include spreading vicious rumours, excluding the victim from team meetings, and denying access to materials.

Because a group is involved, mobbing is often more subtle than less extreme forms of bullying – but the impact is more severe because of the number of people involved. As mobbing often manifests as a series of unrelated events, often when a victim complains, they are labelled by others as a “chronic complainer”.

The ringleader or chief bully is usually an emotionally disturbed individual who is threatened by or jealous of an individual. The chief bully receives intense gratification both through encouraging others to cause emotional harm to the victim, and by observing the impact of those actions. They often camouflage their “darker side” by interacting with the victim in a thoughtful, caring and polite manner.

It’s important to recognise that the impact of mobbing is more widespread across an organisation than less extreme forms of bullying. That’s because those co-workers outside the chief bully’s group are often influenced by how the victim is portrayed in the workplace. Once influenced, co-workers who aren’t directly involved in mobbing may shun a victim whose reputation may have been shattered – fearing any association with that person. Such co-workers might not be active participants in mobbing but end up adding to the victim’s trauma through their lack of support.

The bottom line

Leaders, managers and supervisors who turn a blind eye to mobbing in the workplace are by default part of the chief bully’s group. That’s because they have failed to intervene to put a stop to the mobbing. 

The prognosis for victims of mobbing is poor. If there’s no early intervention in a mobbing case, damage is quickly done – and it’s frequently impossible for a victim to stay in an organisation.

Professor Gary Martin is the CEO and and executive director at the Australian Institute of Management WA. This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article

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4 thoughts on “How to recognise this extreme form of workplace bullying

  1. As a registered psychologist providing EAP service, I hear of workplace mobbing quite frequently. This includes management turning a blind eye to very suttle forms of intimidation so the ring leader could feel good of her/ himself. The question I ask is “Do persons get promoted to positions of authority based solely on their performance and not their people/ leadership skills as well? If so, this issue must then be addressed from top management down as they may be indirectly part of the workplace mobbing process as well.

  2. While this may be a new concept for office based employees, it is something that trade based employees have been experiencing since the Industrial Revolution. Ask any Baby Boomer who went through the apprentice process and they’ll tell you about the workplace mobbing they experienced. Ask any military member and again, they’ll tell you the reality about their hazing. It was only a matter of time that it became a feature of office life.

  3. I was mobbed in a workplace in the mid 1990s. It was a shocking experience.

    The article is absolutely right. Management did turn a blind eye to it. I was isolated and shunned. People would turn their backs when I went near them. The work that I needed to provide to the customer service team for their action, was often left without being done, for no reason. The HR manager was the worst culprit. She did the pays, and even held back a bonus, which everyone else got at Christmas time.

    Having access to a company car, I used to go home to sleep during the day. My sales figures were abysmal. I cried a lot and my friends told me I should leave my job. As a single Mum, it was not as simple as that.

    The sales and customer service team went on an old steam train excursion as a treat, taking the team of one of our major clients. Instead of being a lovely day, I was once again shunned. On the train, there was nowhere for me to escape. Unfortunately the trip came with an ample supply of alcohol. Miserable, I drank too much and thought very strongly about jumping from the moving train. It was only the thought of leaving my kids without a Mum that stopped me.

    The HR Manager had a car accident and I visited her in hospital, taking her flowers and magazines. I wished her well and left soon after.

    Upon her return to work, the HR Manager cornered me in the toilets. She apologised for her previous actions and promised to tell the the others to stop treating me so badly. It was a tremendous relief to recognise that I was not imagining the mobbing, nor was I over reacting.

    The team did stop bullying me. I ended up loving my job.

    Soon after I heard the women planning how they were going to give a new manager a hard time. I did nothing about it, and was just glad it wasn’t me.

    Now I train workers in how to Identify, Prevent and Manage Workplace Bullying & Harassment. I see all along the progress of my bullying, how and where I could have put a stop to it early, and how I could have stood up for the new manager who was about to cop it.

    It is great to know that workplace bullying & harassment can be stopped, and how to do it. Training for all workers is essential, as is training for managers in how to identify when a worker is being bullied and how to handle complaints. In some cases, mediation may be helpful. For toxic workplaces an independent confidential reporting line is really effective.

    We analyse the needs of the workplace and put into action plans which will keep workers safe and the workplace productive.

  4. This is a great article – thank you. How distressing that the “prognosis” is not good for those of us who have experienced it. At the root of this behaviour is narcissism … so look for narcissism and you will find the source. These same people are often known as the “smiling assassin”. There should be serious consequences to their behaviour and appropriate public displays of apology and redress by ALL involved to help the person who has experienced such bastardry feel like they might be able to feel safe again. Shameful behaviour – disgusting. No wonder people want to die.

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