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Mobbing, a horrifying new trend whereby a bully enlists co-workers to collude in a relentless campaign of psychological terror against a hapless target. Targets are usually anyone who is “different” from the organisational norm. Usually the victims are competent, resilient, outspoken, challenge the status quo, are more empathetic or attractive and tend to be women between the ages 30-60. Targets also can be racially different. The target is placed on the receiving end of ridicule, humiliation and eventually removal from the workplace; leaving the victim reeling with no idea as to what happened or why.

It strips a person’s sense of security in the workplace, dignity and identity. Due to being targeted and unjustly criticised, he or she may be perceived as a “troublemaker” by others, consequently getting ignored and isolated by nonchalant colleagues. Former allies can thus turn against, leaving him or her professionally isolated. Perhaps, the colleagues thoughts of reasoning being ‘if he is criticised by management, there must be something wrong with him, therefore I would rather not be tarred by the same brush’.

Gossip and innuendo spread behind closed doors before the target is aware of what will be happening, as previously loyal co-workers are enlisted to provide personal information that substantiates damaging rumours. Oftentimes, the person instigating the mobbing is emotionally immature and threatened in some way by the target.

At least 30% of bullying is mobbing – and the tendency is rising.

Mobbing tactics may include:

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Verbal aggression: Workplace bullies are often verbally aggressive toward their targets. The aggression may take the form of a brusque or unpleasant tone when speaking to the victim. In addition, the target may be subjected to insults and sarcastic remarks. 

Stonewalling: Victims of mobbing may find that their suggestions, projects and initiatives are being ignored by co-workers and supervisors. Requests for feedback, status updates or support go unanswered.

Exclusion: Mobbing targets often are excluded and even isolated in the workplace. Exclusion can be “accidentally” leaving the victim off a chain of emails or failing to invite the target to important meetings. Sometimes, the target of mobbing may find themselves physically excluded in the workplace by having their desk or office relocated to an area far away from other team members.

Malicious gossip and slander: Mobbing ringleaders and their supporters may initiate malicious gossip designed to humiliate and undermine the victim. Sometimes, the gossip is pure slander, in others, the gossip reveals personal information about the target that may be embarrassing but has nothing to do with the victim’s professional competency. In extreme cases, these campaigns may extend outside the office and into the industry or profession in which the victim works.

Physical aggression: Mobbing sometimes escalates into physical aggression. While workplace bullies rarely use physical aggression because they fear facing criminal charges, it can happen if the perpetrators have reason to believe that they will not suffer repercussions.

Why Mobbing Happens

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There is no one reason for workplace mobbing: Typical reasons for group harassment and intimidation can range from envy to getting rid of a troublemaker or whistle-blower.

Whatever the end goal might be, the means are generally the same: Mobbing uses exclusion, humiliation, intimidation and other forms of emotional and, sometimes, physical abuse to either drive an employee from the workplace or persuade the employee to conform to the mob’s agenda. Which they never should!

Professional jealousy: Some researchers believe that co-workers choose mobbing targets because of professional jealousy. The target is highly competent and may be considered more skilled, attractive, and productive than other workers. The ringleader is jealous of this individual’s attributes, and recruits others to torment the target until their performance suffers or he or she leaves the organization.

Maintaining status quo: If a co-worker consistently exceeds productivity requirements, other team members may be concerned that they will be expected to meet this new standard. Team members may attempt to sabotage the worker’s efforts to prevent standards from changing.

Driving out whistle-blowers: Federal law protects whistle-blowers from retaliation by employers. Supervisors and co-workers may, however, begin a mobbing campaign against the whistle-blower in hopes of forcing him to quit or to cause a decline in performance that could result in a demotion or termination. While this behavior is also a violation of whistle-blower protection laws, it can be difficult for an employee to prove that the mobbing is retaliatory.

Personal reasons: A mobbing ringleader may simply have a bullying personality and may take satisfaction in tormenting a co-worker. Other co-workers who join in the mobbing may do so because they have the same personality traits, or they fear that if they do not participate, they may themselves become a target.

The Effects of Mobbing

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The effects of workplace mobbing can be devastating for victims and, over time, hurt employee morale and collaterally damage the reputation and profitability of a business.

Targets: Work performance may suffer, which could lead to termination or demotion and difficulty in finding a new job after leaving the company. In some cases, mobbing attacks can significantly damage the victim’s reputation, effectively ending or derailing the target’s career.

Co-workers: When mobbing in a workplace is tolerated, co-workers may find themselves becoming fearful of eventually becoming targets themselves. This fear can lead to anxiety and interfere with job performance. The most competent employees may eventually decide that their current work environment is toxic and seek employment elsewhere.

The Business: Businesses that tolerate bullying will eventually lose their best employees. Those who remain may do so because they have few options, and even the most competent among them may not perform as well as they could. In some cases, a business could eventually become the target of a lawsuit from a bullied employee who can make the case that a company’s failure to address mobbing constituted a violation of the target’s civil rights. Over time, news of a negative work environment and impotent leadership may damage a company’s reputation.

Preventing Intimidation in the Workplace

The impact of workplace mobbing can be devastating to a small business, owners and managers should take office culture seriously.

Human resource policies: Human resource staff should recognize the danger that mobbing poses to individual workers as well as to the company as a whole. Putting anti-bullying policies into place, as well as processes that treat victims as valued employees who deserve support and protection – rather than as nuisances – can go a long way toward improving office culture and reducing incidents of bullying and mobbing.

Leadership attitude: It is reasonable for company leaders to expect employees to behave like adults and sort out personality conflicts in a professional way. However, there are situations in which victims of interpersonal aggression, including mobbing, may have difficulty defending themselves without support from management. Evidence that workers are being mistreated by others should be taken seriously, for both the benefit of victims as well as the long-term health of the company.

Assessing office culture: In some cases, office culture and policies may encourage bullying and mobbing. For example, if executives and managers communicate that it is okay to treat employees poorly, a hostile culture will flourish, with the strongest employees continually picking on the most vulnerable. While healthy competition can be beneficial to an organization, a hyper-competitive atmosphere can trigger the mobbing of otherwise excellent employees.

Legal Issues

An employee who quits due to mobbing may be eligible for unemployment compensation by arguing that the mobbing constitutes a “constructive discharge,” workplace conditions so intolerable that the employee had no choice but to terminate her employment. If the employee is successful in pursuing a constructive discharge claim, the employer’s payroll taxes might increase.

The best way to deal with workplace mobbing is to increase resilience, or, get out as soon as possible. It is often impossible to win against organizations that tacitly support mobbing, organisations that have the owners and/or executive management as the “bullies on steroids”.

Four steps that you must take to ensure recovery are:

  1. Document everything in detail.
  2. Give yourself space and time to figure things out.
  3. Get a good recovery team to stop the isolation. 
  4. Engage in meaningful life activities

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