The Workplace Mobbing Syndrome:
Response and Prevention in the Public Sector
By Linda Shallcross
Paper presented at the Workplace Bullying:
A Community Response Conference held in Brisbane on
16th and 17th October 2003. It is requested that permission
to cite this unpublished paper be obtained from the
author by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
will be discussing the workplace mobbing syndrome
and how it is addressed in the public sector. The
interchangeable use of ‘bullying’ with
the term ‘mobbing’ and other definitional
complexities will be discussed within the framework
of psychological violence. An overview of the phases
and behaviours that constitute the mobbing syndrome;
the identification of objective criteria that distinguishes
‘mobbing’ behaviour; the regulatory tools
established in some countries; the nature of passive
aggressive behaviours; and the use of powerful networks
in targeting a person, will be highlighted.
I will also provide an overview of research that claims
that there are personality types that make a person
susceptible to become either a perpetrator or a target.
The practical implications of my research are to inform
public sector management of the serious consequences
of poor human resource management practices that often
result in qualified and capable staff leaving or being
‘expelled’ from their positions because
they display qualities such as enthusiasm, integrity,
and commitment that challenge the status quo or dominant
culture. They are easy targets for passive aggressive
and abusive behaviours, including constant criticism,
faultfinding, gossip and slander, and false accusations.
is defined as ‘a malicious attempt to force
a person out of the workplace through unjustified
accusations, humiliation, general harassment, emotional
abuse, and/or terror’ as in Davenport.et.al.
(1999), p 40. The term ‘mobbing’ is preferred
to other definitions of harassment to clearly identify
the behaviour as abusive group behaviour, instead
of, for example, the term ‘bullying’ that
implies individual acts of aggression. The phenomenon
of ‘mobbing’ behaviour in the workplace
has been studied by a number of researchers commencing
with Leymann in Sweden in the early 1990s. Different
terms are used to describe the ‘mobbing’
phenomenon, such as ‘emotional abuse’,
‘mistreatment’ and ‘victimisation’.
Leymann (1994) described ‘mobbing’ as
‘harassing’, ‘ganging up on someone’,
or ‘psychologically terrorizing’ others
at work. Another researcher describes it as a deliberate
‘campaign’ by co-workers to exclude, punish
and humiliate a targeted worker in a ‘desperate
urge to crush and eliminate’ them in the workplace
(Westhues, 2002). The outcome of mobbing is the target's
'expulsion' from the workplace, causing psychological
and physical injuries as well as financial distress
(Davenport et al., 1999; Einarsen et al., 2003; Leymann
& Gustaffson, 1996). Some targets have committed
suicide and the symptoms of those who have been ‘expelled’
are similar to those of post traumatic stress disorder.
Perceptions of ‘bullying’
A number of state governments have
introduced policies to address the issue of workplace
bullying. For example here in Queensland, the Government
established a Workplace Bullying Task Force in 2002.
In its report, the Taskforce suggested policies and
procedures for dealing with ‘bullying’
behaviours in the public sector. In addition, a Draft
Advisory Standard for the Prevention of Workplace
Harassment (2003) has been distributed for public
comment before being finalised. However, mention
is not made of the ‘mobbing’ syndrome
or that abusive and destructive behaviours can be
perpetrated upwards towards managers. The most
widely held perception is that managers ‘bully’
and that the people they supervise are the ‘victims’.
This stereotype is perpetuated in the media where
emotive language is used to describe the ‘boss’
as ‘evil’, ‘crazy’, and as
‘inflictors of misery’ (Lewis, 2003).
The language used to describe ‘bully bosses’,
and the descriptions of their proposed punishment,
suggests a culture where punitive, harsh, demonising,
menacing, and abusive processes are condoned as a
solution for dealing with the ‘bully’
(Einarsen et al., 2003; Lewis, 2000; McCarthy, 2003).
While some research has identified
that the ‘bully boss’ model constitutes
the majority of cases as identified in Bullying
in the workplace (2002); Einarsen (1999); Mikkelsen
& Einarsen (2001), Rayner (1999), M. Sheehan (2001),
Sheehan, Barker, & Rayner (1999), Sheehan, McCarthy,
& Kearns (1998), attention also needs to be given
to the ‘mobbing syndrome’, and in particular
‘upwards’ mobbing, and how it is used
to shift a person out of their employment because
they have become the ‘target’ of the group.
While the syndrome is not generally recognised or
understood in English speaking countries, it has not
only been recognised, but has also been legislated
against in some European and Scandinavian countries.
The International Labour Organisation
(ILO) in its report, When Working Becomes Hazardous:
punching, spitting, swearing, shooting: violence at
work goes global (1998), identified violence
as being a labour issue of increasing world wide concern
(Chappell & Di Martino, 1998). It is particularly
significant that the ILO has extended the definition
of workplace violence to include not only physical
acts of aggression but also passive or psychological
acts. The damage caused includes post traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), premature death, suicide,
and homicide. Similarly, studies highlight the
detrimental impact on family members and bystanders
who witness the aggression and/or those who provide
emotional support to those targeted. The literature
addresses two major concepts of psychological violence
at work, namely ‘mobbing’ and ‘bullying’.
Those who prefer the term ‘mobbing’
suggest that ‘bullying’ primarily refers
to situations of physically aggressive acts of ‘individual
harassment’ whereas ‘mobbing’ refers
to situations of subtle and less direct ‘collective
harassment’ (Davenport et al., 1999).
Another significant difference is that the ‘mobbing’
specific research tends to focus on organisational
risk factors and the impact on the target, whereas
the bulk of the ‘bullying’ specific research
tends to focus on the personality and the dysfunctional
behaviour of the ‘bully’.
The Mobbing Syndrome
Essentially, there are five phases
of the ‘mobbing syndrome’ commencing with
a ‘conflict’ (first phase), followed by
‘aggressive acts’ and ‘psychological
assaults’ (second phase), after which management
becomes involved to the detriment of the target (third
phase), the target is ‘branded as difficult’
or ‘mentally ill’ (fourth phase), and
the final and fifth phase is termed the ‘expulsion’
where the target is forced to leave their position
(Leymann & Gustaffson, 1996). In addition,
mobbing is described according to degrees, using the
analogy of the degrees of damage caused by burns to
the body, that is first, second and third degree ‘mobbing’
(Davenport et al.).
While many researchers have fused
the terms ‘mobbing’ and ‘bullying’
to mean the same phenomenon, the social construction
of the term ‘bullying’ does not necessarily
include ‘mobbing’. ‘Bullying’
is generally understood to refer to aggressive managers
who ‘bully’ the staff they supervise often
targeting an individual in a direct and obvious way.
By contrast, ‘mobbing’ refers to
covert collective behaviours of ‘ganging up’
and targeting co-workers and managers as well as subordinates
using passive aggressive behaviours with malicious
intent to cause harm (Davenport et al., 1999; Einarsen
et al., 2003; Lewis et al., 2002).
The urgent need for objective criteria
to identify workplace bullying is a key theme in the
research because information for studies depends on
the self-reports of targets or ‘self attribution’.
While a worker may perceive that they have been ‘bullied’,
it is essential that there are some common understandings
or objective criteria by which the alleged behaviour
can be measured. Otherwise, the conflicts that occur
as part of normal human interaction at work may be
interpreted incorrectly as ‘bullying’
behaviours (Einarsen et al., 2003; Lewis, 2000, 2003).
Zapf & Einarsen (2003) have suggested that some
workers have started to exploit the benefits of ‘victim’
status by claiming they have been ‘bullied’
to achieve personal goals. Claiming victim status
can benefit a ‘bully’ as ‘victims’
are perceived as ‘fair and innocent’,
to be protected from the bullies who are demonised
as ‘unfair and guilty’ (Zapf & Einarsen,
2003). However, the literature on workplace mobbing
is more specific and provides a number of objective
criteria by which it’s occurrence can be measured.
Within this framework, there are
specific passive aggressive behaviours that constitute
‘mobbing’, some of which are also common
to those exhibited in ‘bullying’. The
behaviours are instigated with the intention to deliberately
‘break people’s spirit’ (Heine,
1995) and ‘to kill life or liveliness’
(Davenport et al., 1999) and following is a list of
those commonly identified in the research.
Many European and Scandinavian
countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden,
Spain, The Netherlands, and Norway, have introduced
a range of regulatory responses to deal with psychological
aggression (Di Martino et al., 2003).
Most recently, Belgium and France introduced legislation
against moral harassment (bullying) at work covering
a wide range of situations of psychological aggression
including verbal abuse, bullying, mobbing, and sexual
harassment. The French legislation, despite its implementation
shortcomings (Bukspan, 2002), makes ‘moral harassment’
a criminal offence with penalties of up to one-year
imprisonment and fines of 15,000 Euro dollars (Di
Martino et al., 2003). In Finland, a new Occupational
Safety and Health Act was approved by Parliament in
June 2000 covering both physical and psychological
violence, including threats of violence, harassment,
sexual harassment, and bullying. Denmark introduced
guidelines in March 2002 requesting that risks of
‘mental health deterioration’ due to bullying
and harassment be taken into account in assessing
work performance and identifying employers as responsible
for prevention under local collective bargaining agreements
(Di Martino et al., 2003).
The Netherlands also has legislation
covering sexual harassment, mobbing, bullying, racism
and psychological aggression (Di Martino et al., 2003).
Italy has introduced legislation that establishes
regionally based ‘anti-mobbing’ units,
and Spain has established new case law identifying
psychological violence as a work injury. Sweden
was the first country to introduce legislation in
1994 specifically targeting passive aggression at
work and designating employers as responsible for
prevention (Davenport et al., 1999; Di Martino et
al., 2003). In Germany, a number of workplaces identify
mobbing as a violation of their collective work agreements.
Luxembourg has a similar system of collective workplace
agreements and for the first time in April 2001, moral
and/or psychological harassment was included.
In the United Kingdom, Ireland,
and Australia, the trend has been to address ‘bullying’
and psychological violence under existing legislation
on industrial relations and workplace safety (Di Martino
et al., 2003). However, in the United States, workplace
bullying is not yet recognised by the legal system
and claims under statutory schemes are said to be
inadequate and seldom successful despite the legal
doctrine of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
(IIED) as outlined in Davenport et al. (1999).
Psychological violence has most
often been recognised in the ‘bullying’
literature as occurring where there is a power imbalance
and where ‘position’ power is abused mostly
by a manager towards the staff they supervise. However,
there are other forms of power that can be gained
through length of experience in a workplace or through
access to influential networks. My research highlights
the effectiveness of ‘informal’ power
in situations of psychological violence resulting
in workplace mobbing.
Key researchers on the ‘mobbing’ syndrome
actively oppose the argument that ‘bullies’
and ‘victims’ display personality traits
that give them a predisposition to bully or to be
bullied, claiming that targets can simply be in the
wrong place at the wrong time (Davenport et al., 1999;
Einarsen et al., 2003; Leymann & Gustaffson, 1996;
Zapf, 1999). However, this is a controversial issue,
as many claim there are personality traits or types
that predispose individuals towards becoming either
a target or a perpetrator of ‘mobbing’
and/or ‘bullying’. This approach is described
by McCarthy (2000) as ‘bully bashing’
and ‘victim blame’. This focus on individual
personality characteristics is said to provide an
indication as to those who are likely to be perpetrators
and targets in the workplace.
Some studies suggest that targets
exhibit personality traits such as being less independent
and extroverted, less stable, and more conscientious
than non-victims. This is provided as a possible reason
as to what it is about the target that attracts psychological
aggression (Zapf & Einarsen, 2003). Perpetrators
on the other hand are described as authoritarian,
manipulative, lacking people skills, insensitive,
evil, sadists and psychopaths as described by McCarthy
(2000). In the current climate where governments are
keen to deal with the issue, it has become the case
that inflated accusations of ‘bullying’
can result in the immediate assumed guilt of the alleged
perpetrator, along with public humiliation in the
media, particularly if they are in a position of power
(Einarsen et al., 2003; Lewis, 2000; McCarthy, 2000,
2003; Zapf & Einarsen, 2003).
Some research findings report that
there is a low occurrence of bullying in organizations
where there are equal numbers of men and women (O'Moore
et al., 2003). However, others highlight its
occurrence in either male or female dominated work
environments. For example, in male dominated ‘macho’
cultures such as defence organizations and the fire
service, targets are subjected to constant threats
and the intimidating use of discipline as well as
bullying group socialization processes (Archer, 1999;
Porteous, 2002). Likewise, men in male dominated occupational
areas, such as the construction industry, report significantly
higher levels of physical and verbal aggression (Hubert
& Veldhoven, 2001), rather than the passive aggressive
types of behaviours that are reported in women dominated
occupations (Hockley, 2002). In addition, others
have identified men as more likely to be the perpetrators
of ‘bullying’ and women most likely those
targeted (Chappell & Di Martino, 2001; Hoel et
al., 2001; Namie & Namie, 1999).
However, women have been identified
as displaying passive aggressive behaviours in the
workplace, particularly towards other women, using
less direct behaviours such as psychological aggression,
emotional abuse, and a range of other passive aggressive
strategies with malicious intent to cause harm to
those targeted (Hockley, 2002; Namie, 2000). These
behaviours have been identified in the female dominated
work sectors of health, education, social welfare,
and public administration (Chappell & Di Martino,
2001; Einarsen, Matthiesen, & Skogstad, 1998;
Hockley, 2002; Hubert & Veldhoven, 2001; Keashly
& Jagatic, 2003; Thomson, 2002; Westhues, 2002).
These different types of behaviours are most likely
due to culturally learned and embedded gendered responses
in dealing with conflict (Hodgetts, 1993; Lee, Pillutla,
& Law, 2000; Leymann & Gustaffson, 1996).
For example, behaviour described as ‘relational
aggression’, where the ‘bully’ damages
the ‘victim’s’ friendship networks
through social manipulation such as spreading rumours
is directly linked to female gender in adolescents
(Cowie et al., 2000), while ‘bullying’
has been socially constructed as male type behaviour.
Girl bullying is more indirect
and often involves threats of social exclusion from
an important circle of friends as identified in Logue
(2001). This behaviour is almost identical to the
‘workplace mobbing syndrome’ described
by Davenport et al. (1999). The ‘bullying’
specific literature is significantly weighted towards
describing men as perpetrators and women as ‘victims’
(Einarsen, 2002). However, there are others
who suggest that men and women are equally likely
to ‘bully’ (Bullying in the workplace,
2002; Namie, 2000). To add to the ambiguity,
other researchers have identified that the lowest
level of ‘bullying’ occurs in those organizations
where mostly men are employed, and that it is highest
in those workplaces where the majority of women are
employed (O'Moore et al., 2003). I have come
to the view that this is primarily a definitional
ambiguity and a lack of recognition of the gendered
nature of responses for dealing with conflict.
These apparent contradictions are clarified when behaviours
identified as bullying in the literature are separated
out into distinctive ‘mobbing’ and ‘bullying’
categories. A stereotype in relation to gendered responses
to conflict then appears, ie women tend to use passive
aggressive behaviours, as identified in the workplace
mobbing specific literature, while men tend to display
aggressive behaviours, as identified in workplace
bullying specific literature. This then provides a
reason for the apparent confusion about the relevance
of gender in the research where the two terms are
In English speaking countries with
traditionally hierarchical bureaucratic structures,
‘bullying’ has been socially constructed
as male type behaviour whereas ‘mobbing’
appears to be a product of flatter administrative
structures in those European and Scandinavian countries
where there is more of a sense of industrial democracy.
It is in these countries, and in those sectors where
women are in the majority that the mobbing syndrome
has been found to occur. This is not intended
to mean that only men bully or that only women use
passive aggressive mobbing behaviours as it is clear
in the research that both men and women can be either
perpetrators or targets. It is also not intended to
mean that bullying only occurs in male dominated bureaucratic
structures or that mobbing only occurs in women dominated
However, it is important not to
be dismissive of gender differences in discussions
on workplace conflict, including bullying and mobbing.
It is highly likely that responses to conflict in
the workplace are the result of learned responses
where typical male type and female type responses
are culturally embedded. It is a common misperception
that ‘equality for women and men’ means
that both genders are exactly the same and should
therefore be treated the same and where gender difference
is dismissed as irrelevant. This denies both men and
women the opportunity to develop their strengths and
to recognize their weaknesses. Rather, equality is
more than a ‘numbers game’ where statistics
are provided as evidence that there are equal numbers
of men and women in the workplace. It also means
recognizing and valuing the differences that each
gender contributes including the strengths of male
type and female type behaviours as well as the weaknesses.
Difference and diversity
In addition to gender, other personal
characteristics such as race, culture, impairment,
age, marital status, and sexual orientation, are high
risk factors for becoming a target of ‘mobbing’
in work environments where there is a dominant group.
Disturbingly, one study (Archer, 1999) found that
those who were different because of their gender or
race were particularly targeted to ‘ensure the
continuation of the white male culture’.
Researchers on workplace diversity issues, for example
cited in Stephenson & Lewin (1996), suggest that
there is a ‘human preference for the familiar’
reflected in expressions such as ‘like seeking
like’ and ‘birds of a feather flock together’.
They argue that the ‘dark’ side of diversity
is that there is a ‘fundamental fear’
of the ‘difference of others’. Diversity,
or difference, is not likely to be valued in workplace
cultures where there is a sense of ‘You don’t
look like me, you don’t dress like me and you
don’t think like me; therefore I don’t
want to know or understand you’.
Employees who are in the minority
due to their inherent characteristics are especially
vulnerable to bullying and mobbing behaviours as recognized
in human rights and anti-discrimination legislation
in many countries, including Australia, the United
Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. Those who
are different to the dominant group including those
with differing political, religious, and trade union
beliefs, or those displaying behaviours that threaten
the dominant work group, for example being ‘conscientious’
or ‘enthusiastic’, are also more likely
to be targeted.
While efforts have been made, for
example with the introduction of workforce diversity
and equal employment opportunity programs, along with
the implementation of the merit principle in recruitment,
and the use of anti discrimination legislation, nevertheless,
the research indicates that it is these same groups
of people that are likely to be targeted for abuse
once they gain access to employment as outlined in
Archer (1999), Bernstein & Arndt, (2001), Bullying
in the workplace (2002), Bullying is a Safe
Work Issue (2003) and Murdoch & Taylor (2002).
However, that is not to suggest that those who identify
with these target groups are all ‘fair and innocent’
as they are equally capable of perpetrating mobbing
or bullying behaviours as well, as noted in Namie
The concept of ‘valuing difference’,
not only because a person is visibly different due
to gender, race, or impairment, but because they may
have a different perspective, a different way of working,
or come from a different social class is important
to understanding why ‘mobbing’ occurs.
If it is assumed that difference and diversity are
principles to be valued in the workplace, as identified
in the Karpin report (1995), then it becomes evident
that there is an underlying tension between agendas
in the public sector. While ‘valuing diversity’
is promoted on one hand, conformity in relation to
behaviour, skills, communication, and the way work
is performed is required on the other. These
tensions must be realised and dealt with if diversity
and difference is truly valued.
All participants, except one, had
experienced systematic collusion where groups of employees
had ‘ganged up’ on them deliberately and
with malicious intent to cause them harm. These
passive aggressive group behaviours, included slander,
gossip, constant criticism, psychological abuse, and
isolation and marginalisation, and had been endured
for at least twelve months before they reached the
extent that they were no longer able to go to work.
Most of the targets experienced the ongoing behaviours
for at least two years, and some for three years and
longer and most were never able to return to their
positions. Most of the participants reported
that they had been either mobbed upwards or horizontally
or both while others experienced the more commonly
recognised ‘bullying’ displayed by their
managers. The participants claimed that the perpetrators
were inexperienced managers promoted beyond their
experience and ability and without the benefit of
a merit process. The perpetrators were said
to be insecure and focussed on furthering their career
ambitions at any expense. The staff who were
targeted were exceptional performers and they each
recognised, in hindsight, that their skills, abilities,
integrity, and enthusiasm helped set them up to be
targeted by those who were challenged by these attributes.
Aspects of workplace culture, such
as the reactive political context, lack of accountability,
scapegoating of managers, lack of equity and merit
in recruitment and selection processes, casualisation
of staff, minimal staffing levels, high competition
for jobs, lack of sufficient resources, turning a
‘blind eye’ to petty theft, and sexual
orientation were identified by most of the participants
as key factors in their experience of workplace abuse.
The culture is one of ongoing passive abuse where
staff who were different to the dominant culture,
because of race, culture, impairment, sexual orientation,
or because they had different ways of working were
not accepted or valued, and they were consequently
marginalised, ostracised and in most cases ‘expelled’
from their positions.
The study revealed that mobbing
behaviour is a symptom of a destructive and toxic
workplace culture rather than because there is a particular
‘perpetrator’ or ‘target’
personality type. The culture of the workplace, including
historical factors, accountability requirements, management
practices, career agendas, the nature of influence
and power, politics, communication processes, high
staff turnover, cover ups, ad hoc appointment processes,
family life, and different values arising from different
life experience, race, culture and/or physical impairment
were identified as fundamental to understanding the
nature of ‘mobbing’ behaviour in the dominant
public service culture that, albeit unwittingly, condones
However, the mobbing behaviours
were not only a symptom of dysfunctional workplace
culture but also a result of the dominant group ‘outing’
or ‘othering’ those who were not accepted.
All of those interviewed for this case study recognised
that they either did not share the culture of the
dominant group or they were not prepared to join in
with what they perceived as destructive and unproductive
behaviour. This resulted in them being deliberately
targeted for ‘expulsion’ from their positions.
The literature highlights that
cooperative, enthusiastic staff with notable achievements,
and a high level of competence seem to be targeted
and this was confirmed through this study where all
of those interviewed for this research said they were
enthusiastic, they were highly competent, and had
personal integrity. However, despite these attributes,
they claimed that their advice was resented, their
different experiences were not valued, and instead
they appeared to be threatening to other staff, and
finally that their roles were devalued as not being
of much importance.
Implications and Recommendations
Despite efforts to improve the
culture, such as workforce diversity, equal employment
opportunity, and family friendly policies, and more
recently the introduction of workplace bullying policies,
this research highlights that practice does not match
the public sector policy expectations. In this study,
workplace mobbing was attributed to a toxic and dysfunctional
workplace culture where staff believed they were not
valued or respected, where people were appointed without
a merit process, and where there was a culture of
blame and scapegoating. People who did not conform
to the values of the dominant culture were targeted
for psychological abuse and eliminated. This problem
is not unique to the public sector and in many ways
reflects the global violence of the times in which
While this area of my research
is still being constructed I can offer some comments
based on considerations so far. One option is to simply
re-invent the workforce diversity, equal employment
opportunity, and work and family programs of the past.
However, after nearly twenty years these programs
have not been sufficient to introduce the significant
level of organisational cultural change required if
workplace mobbing and passive aggressive violence
is to be prevented. Professional development
programs and constructive incentives for staff are
also required if change is to be achieved. However,
the instability of public sector culture, where there
is a high level of staff turnover, ongoing departmental
restructuring and job insecurity, appear to be debilitating
in terms of achieving cultural change. While
ongoing efforts are made to improve the culture, strategies
are also required to encourage prevention of ‘workplace
mobbing’ as well as the development of fair
and just processes for dealing with complaints.
A commitment to not only ‘value’ diversity
but to rejoice in diversity, along with a culture
approaching gender equity and respect for all workers
whatever their impairment, their culture, religion,
politics, sexual orientation or marital status, is
essential to improve workplace culture and thereby
assist with the reduction of conflict and mobbing
behaviours. A renewal of commitment to policies, and
more importantly to practices that ensure merit and
equity in selection processes, and justice and fairness
in employment conditions, are necessary if conflict
and mobbing behaviours are to be addressed in the
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