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Feature Articles : Mobbing: Sophisticated Bullying in the Workplace - Pt. 1

The following article used with permission of the author.

Mobbing: Sophisticated Bullying in the Workplace – Pt. 1
It’s all about power, control and abuse
By 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 place.

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.” 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.

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 life facts.

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 in
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 reputation.

...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.


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Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.

~ Elie Wiesel


All truth passes through 3 stages. 
First, it is
Second, it is
violently opposed.
Third, it is
accepted as being self-evident.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer 

Interview with a Target of
Workplace Bullying

by John Peel
on Home Truths,
BBC Radio 4

Courtesy BullyEQ


Calgary Herald
"...grossly unacceptable employer behaviour."
"There was a lot of bullying in the newsroom and it was a gift to be able to stand up and say we are prepared to do something about it."

Canwest Global
"The CanWest corporation is showing the ugly and intolerant face of modern media," ... "While openly interfering in editorial content it cravenly punishes those journalists who have the courage to protest."
"Many journalists left CanWest, deciding to quit or take disability leave after the frigid mood of their newsrooms made them ill."
> Canwest Watch

Imperial Parking
"Timothy Lloyd decided he had had enough of "going in to war every day." ... I was very unhappy in my work -- burned out, stressed out ... There were constant threats of dismissal, constant invading of my personal space, and use of profanity that was personally directed at me."
> HealthSmith

Annuity Research & Marketing Service Ltd.
"Every employer, said Justice Dambrot, owes a contractual duty to its employees to “treat them fairly, with civility, decency, respect, and dignity.” By failing to protect Ms. Stamos from Mr. Hammami’s harassment, the court concluded that the employer had breached this contractual duty."
> Labor Relations Consultants

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