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Mobbing: At the Mercy of the Mob
A Summary of Research on Workplace
By Prof. Kenneth Westhues
In the early 1980s, a Swedish psychologist named
Heinz Leymann identified a grave threat to health
and safety in what appear to be the healthiest, safest
workplaces in the world. German was Leymann’s
first language, Swedish his second, but he labeled
the distinct menace he had found with an English word:
Over the next twenty years, news of Leymann’s
discovery spread across Europe and beyond. Untranslated,
the English name he gave it entered the vocabulary
of workplace relations throughout Scandinavia and
in Germany, Italy, and other countries. All across
Europe, not only specialists in occupational health
but managers, union leaders, and the public at large
came to recognize workplace mobbing as a real, measurable
kind of harm, a destroyer of health and life.
Strangely, recognition of Leymann’s discovery
has been slower in coming to the English-speaking
world. Newsweek published a popular summary of research
on workplace mobbing in 2000, but only in its European
edition. In Britain and America, attention has focussed
less on mobbing than on the different but related
problem of bullying, and, occasionally, on one of
its extremely rare possible results: the outbursts
of extreme violence, that from time to time make headlines
across the country.
Workplace mobbing was almost never discussed in Canada
until the coroner's inquest following the murder of
four workers at OC Transpo in Ottawa in 1999. In that
case, a former employee, Pierre Lebrun, had ended
the shooting spree by also taking his own life. It
turned out that Lebrun had been ridiculed relentlessly
by co-workers for his stutter, and then, after he
had slapped one of them in retaliation, been forced
to apologize to his tormentors. Had Lebrun been mobbed
at work? Was this the phenomenon Leymann had in mind?
Media reports and the inquest itself tentatively said
Mobbing can be understood
as the stressor to
beat all stressors. It is an impassioned,
collective campaign by co-workers to
exclude, punish, and humiliate
a targeted worker.
In 2000 and 2001, The National Post publicized my
research on mobbing in the academic workplace, the
process by which even tenured professors are ganged
up on, humiliated, and run out of their jobs. While
trying to make sense of some bizarre and hugely destructive
university conflicts in 1994, I had stumbled upon
Leymann’s work and found it powerfully illuminating
of the data in my files.
In the meanwhile, the concept of workplace mobbing
caught the attention of the Ontario Nurses Association,
the College Institute Educators Association of British
Columbia, and a smattering of other union and management
groups, which then sponsored workshops on the topic,
much as occurred in Germany a decade earlier.
The Trauma of Being Mobbed
To describe mobbing as possibly the gravest threat
most workers face is not to ignore threats posed by
slippery floors, dangerous machines, toxic chemicals,
and the other material hazards that health and safety
committees properly make their top priority.
In practical terms, however, the worst kind of harm
most Canadians have to fear at work is the kind that
arises from faulty human relations, some kind of glitch
in how people treat one another. Montreal researcher
Hans Selye won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1964,
for the best single-word description of today’s
main workplace ills: stress. This short English word
struck a chord in both the scientific community and
the public, as mobbing would decades later, and quickly
found its way into other languages. By now, research
has shown in a thousand ways the stark, even lethal
effects of too much of the wrong kind of stress on
physical and mental health.
Mobbing can be understood as the stressor to beat
all stressors. It is an impassioned, collective campaign
by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a
targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person
in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a
desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target.
The urge travels through the workplace like a virus,
infecting one person after another. The target comes
to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming
qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability,
deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds,
a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications
comes to be seen as legitimate.
Mobbing is hardly the only source of debilitating
stress at work, and it was not the only one on which
Leymann did research. He interviewed bank employees
who had undergone the terror of armed robbery, and
subway drivers who had watched helplessly as their
trains ran over persons who fell or jumped onto the
tracks. Leymann documented the depression, absenteeism,
sleeplessness, and other symptoms of trauma resulting
from such stressful experiences.
Bank robberies and subway suicides were no match,
however, for being mobbed by co-workers in the personal
devastation that ensued. Not infrequently, mobbing
spelled the end of the target’s career, marriage,
health, and livelihood. From a study of circumstances
surrounding suicides in Sweden, Leymann estimated
that about twelve percent of people who take their
own lives have recently been mobbed at work.
How it Happens
Mobbing is relatively rare, and many workplaces hum
along for decades without a single case of it. But
by Leymann’s and others' estimates, between
two and five percent of adults are mobbed sometime
during their working lives. The other 95 percent,
involved in the process only as observers, bystanders,
or perpetrators (though occasionally also as rescuers
or guardians of the target), mostly deny, gloss over,
and forget the mobbing cases in which they took part.
That is one reason it has taken so long for the phenomenon
to be identified and researched.
That children and teenagers sometimes join in collectively
humiliating one of their number is well known--most
people can cite examples from their own school days.
The widely publicized deaths of two girls in British
Columbia–Reena Virk, beaten and drowned in 1999,
and Dawn Marie Wesley, driven to suicide in 2000–have
heightened public awareness of the cruel reality of
swarming or collective bullying among both girls and
Leymann’s contribution was to document beyond
any doubt the same reality among adults, even in the
cool, rational, professional, bureaucratic, policy-governed
setting of a workplace. The tactics differ. Workplace
mobbing is normally carried out politely, without
any violence, and with ample written documentation.
Yet even without the blood, the bloodlust is essentially
the same: contagion and mimicking of unfriendly, hostile
acts toward the target; relentless undermining of
the target’s self-confidence; group solidarity
against one whom all agree does not belong; and the
euphoria of collective attack.
An Example from a Factory
One of the cases that first opened my eyes to workplace
mobbing serves also to illustrate related concepts
commonly but mistakenly applied. A former student
of mine asked if he and his wife could meet with me.
She was being sexually harassed, he said, in the factory
where she had worked for most of her adult life.
The label this woman and her husband had placed on
her problem fit the facts they presented to me. She
was regularly paired for certain tasks with a male
co-worker who day after day humiliated her with insults
to her work and degrading sexual slurs. Years earlier,
when she had threatened to report him to the boss,
he had grabbed her arm in a threatening manner.
Yet as this shy, soft-spoken lady shared more facts
with me, sexual harassment appeared to be a very partial
characterization of her predicament. She had in fact
complained to both union and management about the
man's offensive behavior, but to no avail. She and
her husband were at wit’s end. The leader of
the union was a paragon of political correctness.
A zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment was posted
where all could see. Yet her harasser carried on as
Explanation could be found only in the larger dynamics
of the work group. This woman ranked at the bottom
of the pecking order. She was apart from her workmates
in three crucial ways. First, she had a partial disability,
the result of an accident at work years before, that
under terms of the collective agreement precluded
her doing certain jobs. For want of physical dexterity,
she was exempt from tasks at which everybody else
took a turn. She was also paid at an hourly rate,
while most others were on piecework.
Second, though most workers in the group were from
immigrant groups, this woman was from a different
one than everybody else. Ethnically, she was a minority
Third, while most of her peers sprinkled their speech
with obscenities, took crude banter in stride, and
seemed to thrive on a relatively coarse workplace
culture, this woman did not. She was devoted to her
family and her faith.
These and other factors made her an outcast. Her
problem was far worse than one man’s harassment
and bullying. It was the humiliation of daily loathing
by her peers. What drove her over the edge were comments
from two female co-workers on a hot summer day when
job assignments were being rotated. One called out
so that all could hear, “I don’t want
to work with the cripple.” Another, distributing
sweatbands to combat the heat, passed this worker
by saying, “You don’t work hard enough
to get one.”
At that point, this veteran of years of co-workers'
hostility began crying then and could not stop. She
was taken to the nurse, who sent her home. Her husband
took her to the hospital emergency room. She was diagnosed
with clinical depression and placed on sick leave.
She returned to work months later, was again paired
with the man who led the harassment and later suffered
a severe heart attack. The formal grievances she had
lodged were resolved with her early retirement about
ten years after the mobbing began.
The case illustrates the escalation that is essential
to workplace mobbing. Each higher level of authority,
in both company and union, to which this woman and
her husband appealed, was faced with overturning the
will of a successively larger group of subordinates.
Steadily more and higher-level employees over time
voiced the common sentiment: this woman is impossible
to work with, she has to go.
Mobbing was exacerbated in this case by its leader's
special status in the group. Some female workers found
him sexy. He had connections for getting cigarettes
and alcohol tax-free, and in this way had forged semi-secret
ties with other employees. Acting in the role of chief
eliminator, he led the campaign to rob one partially
disabled worker of her job, her dignity, and her health.
The process took years, but it eventually achieved
Mobbing Versus Other Exits
Why didn’t this factory worker quit? In the
answer to this question lie clues to why mobbing is
more common in some employment situations than others.
Mobbing rarely happens to a worker who can easily
relocate to a different employer.
Mobbing is also rare in the case of workers on at-will
contracts, since they can be summarily fired. A manager
faced with ten subordinates who get along and get
work done reasonably well, all of whom despise a certain
other subordinate and want to be rid of him or her,
ordinarily heeds the collective will. If for some
reason the manager does not, there is conflict but
not mobbing, since opinion about the acceptability
of the worker in question is divided.
Further, in situations where a worker can be terminated
only for cause, mobbing seldom occurs if legitimate
cause exists. On the basis of clear evidence of substandard
performance or serious misconduct, workers are routinely
terminated–firmly, but often with compassion
The worker most vulnerable to being mobbed is an
average or high achiever who is personally invested
in a formally secure job, but who nonetheless somehow
threatens or puts to shame co-workers and/or managers.
Such a worker provides no legally defensible grounds
for termination, yet usually fails to pick up subtle
hints and leave voluntarily. An attractive solution,
from the majority point of view, is to bring or wear
this worker down, one way or another, however long
As the process drags on, both sides, collective and
individual, dig in their heels. It is often as if
the targeted worker has grabbed a hot wire and cannot
let go, despite the pain and injury it inflicts. The
worker’s investment of self and sense of having
been deeply wronged prevent the one resolution that
would satisfy the other side.
Ironically, it is in workplaces where workers’
rights are formally protected that the complex and
devious incursions on human dignity that constitute
mobbing most commonly occur. Union shops are one example,
as in the case of the factory worker described above.
University faculties are another, on account of the
special protections of tenure and academic freedom
professors have. It happens in police forces, too,
since management rights in this setting are tempered
by the oath officers swear to uphold the law. Mobbings
appear to be much more frequent in the public service
as a whole, as compared to private companies.
Mobbing also appears to be more common in the professional
service sector–such as education and health
care–where work is complex, goals ambiguous,
best practices debatable, and market discipline far
away. Scapegoating is an effective if temporary means
of achieving group solidarity, when it cannot be achieved
in a more constructive way. It is a turning inward,
a diversion of energy away from serving nebulous external
purposes toward the deliciously clear, specific goal
of ruining a disliked co-worker's life.
What to Do About It
As a clinician, Leymann made his priority the healing
of post-traumatic stress in those most severely affected
by mobbing. With the support of the Swedish health
service, he opened a clinic for mobbing victims in
1994, and published detailed research on the first
64 patients treated there. That clinic no longer exists
and Leymann himself died in 1999, but 200 patients
are currently treated in a similar clinic that opened
in Saarbruecken, Germany, this year.
Competent, well-informed treatment of the many mobbing
targets who suffer mental breakdown is obviously in
order, especially since they have often in the past
been misdiagnosed as having paranoid delusions.
Psychiatric injury, however, is but one possible
harmful result of being mobbed. Some mobbing targets
keep their sanity but succumb to cardiovascular disease–hypertension,
heart attack, or stroke. Most suffer loss of income
and reputation. Marital breakdown and isolation from
friends and family are also common outcomes.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,
although experts do not agree on the ingredients of
the desired ounce. Believers in human perfectibility
favor enacting laws and policies that forbid workplace
mobbing under pain of punishment. Organizations as
diverse as Volkswagen in Germany and the Department
of Environmental Quality in the American state of
Oregon already have anti-mobbing policies in place.
It is too soon to say what effect, if any, such policies
will have on the incidence of the phenomenon.
The impulse to gang up, to join with others against
what is perceived to be a common threat, lies deep
in human nature. It is not easily outlawed. A policy
forbidding it may, in practice, become a weapon for
convicting some mobbing target of a punishable offense
and thereby aiding in his or her humiliation. The
evidence is clear by now that policies against sexual
harassment have often been used as tools for harassing
innocent but disliked workmates. Anti-mobbing policies
may turn out to be even more versatile tools for such
The tiny percentage of mobbing victims – like
Pierre Lebrun – who lash back in violent attack
would probably have lived out their lives peaceably
and productively had they been spared the excruciating
pain of relentless humiliation.
All can agree, at least, on the desirability of public
awareness of the vital but sad discovery Heinz Leymann
made two decades ago, and on the continuing need for
careful, critical scholarship that builds on his.
The better we understand ourselves, including our
darker impulses, the more able we are to keep one
another healthy and safe.
Published in OHS Canada, Canada's
Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, Vol. 18,
No. 8, December 2002, pp. 30-36. Published on the
web, January 2003.
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