The following article used with
permission of the author.
Mobbing: Sophisticated Bullying
in the Workplace – Pt. 1
all about power, control and abuse
Valerie Atkinson Brown
While at first it may seem like
an activity for rioters or looters, mobbing has become
associated with abusive workplace conduct –
and a very specific type of conduct. The consequences
of this type of abuse, in fact, are so deadly that
many victims die of a heart attack or commit suicide
as a result. When hearing the details of a few stories
– from victims who survive – you will
begin to understand the problem.
While this first article in the
series primes you with the categories of mobbing,
subsequent articles in this series will present specifics
about mobbing occurrences and will cite cases of mobbing
in European nations and in the United States. In the
end, it will become clear – it is a problem
that is happening all over the world.
Mobbing from Personal Experience
In 1989, I began to work in an
office where abuse was so rife, I could not believe
it was taking place. The most bazaar part of the story
was that it was in a legal environment where one might
think that adherence to every labor law would come
first. But this was not the case. Not at all.
Once I endured five years of this
environment, I left - hoping to see that our justice
system was in place for victims. It was not. Not only
that, I found that the “system” re-victimizes
the victim, then finally leaves a scar on the victim
as a bad person, a person to avoid and a person to
ridicule or to scorn. In this sense, the mobbing,
for some victims seems endless. For this reason, some
victims see ending their lives as the final solution.
Thus to begin to understand the
problem, mediators must be aware of everything that
happens to a victim that took them from Point A –
a satisfied, productive working professional to Point
Z – a dysfunctional, depressed, confused and
angry person who cannot solve the problem without
professional help. At the point the target reaches
the mediator, outsiders will simply point to the target
as angry, bitter, disgruntled employee, or as a whiner.
If the victim has endured each phase of mobbing, then
finally expulsion from the workplace, the person’s
outer image and self image has become so skewed that
often times a profound personality change has taken
Like all victims (in mobbing terminology
– targets), one finds that there is total disbelief
that abuse is taking place, even by agencies such
as the EEOC, Public Citizen, ACLU, or even the United
States Attorney General or the United States Justice
Department Civil Rights Division. The same amount
of denial happens when the target is in the abusive
workplace. But, in that case, sometimes it is the
target’s own denial taking place: most targets
use the same language when speaking to therapists
or clergy – “I cannot believe this is
happening to me. I cannot believe this – I do
not understand what is happening.”
...in a mobbing scenario,
like many rape cases,
fighting back is to no avail. In fact, it simply fuels
the perpetrator or perpetrators have total power and
over the victim – to humiliate, degrade, harass
and defile –
leaving them scarred for life.
When targets realize that an entire
group of co-workers decides to ostracize them, they
begin going through phases – similar to any
victim, denial being one of them. Then targets might
become aware about what is happening and beginning
a phase where they fight back. But in a mobbing scenario,
like many rape cases, fighting back is to no avail.
In fact, it simply fuels the mobbing: the perpetrator
or perpetrators have total power and control over
the victim – to humiliate, degrade, harass and
defile – leaving them scarred for life. The
bad experience then becomes worse: government relief
agencies have been known to be bystanders –
offering no intervention on the target’s behalf.
For the mediator to understand
the psychological aspect, not the legal one, a mobbing
injury, once the person has become truly “sick”,
shares similarities with rape victimization. Such
victimization and damage to the soul can hardly be
explained in a clear, coherent way. For the survivor,
the injury can never, never be reversed; once the
damaging experience has happened, eventually the surviving
victim has to accept it.
Thus to begin to explain mobbing,
it is critical to understand the five categories of
mobbing, then understand the phases the target goes
through – all the way from the coping phase
to the final surrender phase (which can end in death
or mental illness).
This first article starts with
the categories of mobbing, then later articles will
describe a target’s phases of progression.
First a short history of how I
became entrenched in the subject of mobbing and psychological
health in workplaces….
From Thesis to Fellowship
After conducting several years
of research and after completing a thesis for my masters,
I obtained mountains of books, studies, papers, and
interviews about mobbing. Luckily my professor, Dr.
Walter Wright, encouraged me to find as much data
as possible before drawing conclusions in my thesis
statement. This encouragement to gather books, studies
and articles kept me reaching as far as possible to
obtain every detail I could about mobbing.
Then the miracle happened: in 2003
I applied for a fellowship to travel to Germany under
the auspices of the American Council on Germany. I
wrote my proposal describing mobbing. By then, I had
so many books along with my own experience, I knew
I had the topic nailed. I just needed to meet the
Germans in person and to hear them talk about mobbing.
I waited for a while, then became
busy with other writing pursuits. Then it came –
the dreaded rejection letter. The usual – “we
regret to inform you…” was all I read.
I set the letter aside, felt deeply disappointed,
then eventually moved on to other pursuits and applications
for other fellowships.
Then something strange happened
– a letter, an invitation, an acceptance –
to study mobbing on a fellowship – not the one
I had applied for, but another one offered within
the American Council on Germany. Eureka! I thought.
I will finally crack the code and find out why we
have a hole in our law and why we have no protection
for mobbing targets. I knew then I could start making
big changes. Then after months of planning, emailing,
and studying the map, I was on my way.
Armed with my mobbing books, list
of contacts, and a tiny seed of faith, I knew somehow
I could come back from this mission with many answers
and many solutions for mediators, counselors, lawyers,
judges, and clergy members.
Mobbing Occurs in Phases
To begin explaining how mobbing
occurs, one must think categorically. In essence,
there are so many “abusive” workplace
practices that on the outside appear to be trivial
or non-incidental. But it is the slow accumulation
of events and trauma to the victim that starts to
appear as a sickness that made Dr. Heinz Leymann want
to study work abuse victims further. His studies,
then eventual naming of the phenomenon – mobbing,
started with identification of five distinct categories.
One category of mobbing includes
incidents within the realm of communication. Leymann
discovered that within the work environment there
were attacks on the possibility of expressing
him/herself. Specifically, this category included
actions such as: the target finds there are limitations
in expressing oneself, or is constantly being interrupted
or even being shouted at or told off. The target might
also receive constant criticism of the work product,
or the target receives constant criticism of private
Then there are more overt, active
incidents of mobbing in this category. These can include
telephone terror, verbal threats, written threats,
or alienation through devaluing views or gestures.
As with any phase
of mobbing, human resources may
become passive or can actually begin to participate
the mobbing in companies where dignity and respect
are not instilled in company policy.
Then in another realm of mobbing,
mobbers use information that has nothing to do with
the work, this information only being used to jab
the target based on personal weaknesses or things
that targets might be self conscious about. Leymann
called this category: attacks on social relations.
Such incidents in this category include: ignoring
a target, disallowing the target to express oneself,
transferring the target to a room far away from colleagues,
or disallowing work colleagues to talk to the target.
Any or all of these activities from this category
might occur in a mobbing scenario.
In another category of mobbing
actions, mobbers become more aggressive in social
attacks upon the target. As with any phase of mobbing,
human resources may become passive or can actually
begin to participate in the mobbing in companies where
dignity and respect are not instilled in company policy.
Incidents in this category, called effects on
social reputation, include some of the most humiliating
and demoralizing actions against the target. These
include bad-mouthing the target, spreading rumors
about the target, making the target look ridiculous
or making the target of mean and abusive jokes.
When the target becomes so beaten
down, company officials might force the target to
undergo psychiatric investigation. Then to compound
the problem, the mobbers can instill doubt in others
about the target; they might even express suspicion
that the target is psychologically ill.
Also in this category mobbers might
scoff at a handicap or physical defect in the target.
They may imitate a target’s gait, voice or gestures
in order to make the target look ridiculous. On a
deeper, more personal level, mobbers may attack the
target’s political and religious views or make
fun of the target’s private life. They might
also make fun of a target’s nationality.
Finally in this category, a target
could be forced to carry out work which offends the
target’s self-confidence. Mobbers could also
have input judged in a false or insulting way. Another
way to insult the target or undermine confidence includes
actions such as questioning the target’s decisions.
Or targets might find sexual approaches or offers
being made or even have obscene expressions or gestures
shown to them.
In the category of attacks
on the quality of occupation and life, critical
damage takes place that begins to make the appearance
that the target is no longer needed and must be eliminated
from the position. This category includes such activities
as not assigning work or depriving the target of work
so that the target cannot find a task to complete.
In addition, in this category useless work functions
are given or the target is assigned work that does
not respond to the target’s qualifications.
Or the work assignments could even be offensive and
well below the target’s qualifications. Then
there is another subversive way to undermine the target
by switching work duties around: the target is constantly
assigned new functions or the target is given work
functions which exceed the target’s qualifications.
This has the function of compromising the target’s
...because the target
has become so beaten down, defamed,
ridiculed and then assigned inappropriate work duties,
the target appears as the person who must go.
Then in a more aggressive attempt
to destroy the target there is the category of physical
attacks with an impact on the health of targets.
In this category, several incidents that may occur:
there may be obligation to carry out unhealthy works
or a menace of physical force. Then there could be
the application of light pressure in order to teach
someone a lesson. Then the mobbers might become more
destructive or aggressive: there could be physical
maltreatment or sexual touching or damage done to
a target’s workstation or place of residence.
In this category, costs are caused in order to harm
the person concerned. This is the category that might
become the most damning for employers and for targets
– the fact that costs incur mean that the mobbing
has become so destructive and costly that the problem
must be solved.
Unfortunately because the target
has become so beaten down, defamed, ridiculed and
then assigned inappropriate work duties, the target
appears as the person who must go. In the oddest way,
somehow the target at this point appears to be the
cause – that somehow the target brought the
mobbing on oneself or deserved the ill treatment or
is simply incompetent.
This, according to Austrian labor
specialists, is where they use the term symptomträger
– the symptom bearer. Derived from family therapy,
the symptomträger bears all the characteristics
of a sick environment – where abuse and mistreatment
prevail. When the mobbed person simply bears the symptoms
of the organization’s sickness, sure enough,
in most cases, when a victim leaves, a new victim
pops up six months later. This continuing cycle is
what mobbing specialists are focused on – the
how’s and why’s of mobbing and how it
keeps perpetuating within some organizations yet is
absent from others.
According to Austrian researchers,
while some environments have outrageous cases of mobbing,
some do not. Their structure is simply not conducive
to mobbing. Thus subsequent articles in this series
will have updates on work environments where mobbing
prevails or is absent.
As my series progresses, you will
see why, though mobbing has many descriptions and
pseudonyms, I call it a social suffocation and a puncture
wound to the soul. As a rape victim, the target receives
damage that no one on the outside can see or fully
understand – but the target feels inside forever.
Contact Information and Bio
Valerie Atkinson Brown
Valerie Atkinson Brown, an 18-year
veteran of legal and business environments, holds
a mediator certification issued through the Texas
State University Legal Studies Program. After working
as a telecommunications paralegal, she managed a statewide
program offering computer assisted legal research
services. Taking her information systems/IT (information
technology) career further, she worked on product
launches and web site management in the semiconductor
industry, later working with IT consulting teams.
She completed her masters in Legal Studies from Texas
State University (with a thesis on mobbing), then
continued her self-directed education when she embarked
on a fellowship to Germany where she met the leaders
of the mobbing movement – the colleagues of
Dr. Heinz Leymann. She is now a member of the American
Council on Germany.