In the space of a year, Sheila went from being on the A-list at work to being isolated, singled out for criticism and branded as “trouble.” Like most targets of workplace bullying, the 45-year-old university instructor did not immediately realize she was facing a concerted campaign of emotional abuse by her superiors, women she once trusted and considered friends and mentors.
As months passed and the social isolation, hostility and false accusations of wrongdoing intensified, Sheila (BCBusiness agreed not to identify her or the university) worked even harder to prove her tormentors wrong. “I became a better teacher, published more papers and earned more grants and awards,” she says. “But each achievement was seen as confirmation that I consider myself better than everyone else, each protestation against an unfair accusation a sign that I am a difficult person. And when I make no protestation, it’s seen as an admission of guilt.” Like scores of men and women in workplaces in B.C. and around the world, Sheila was a target of “mobbing,” a painful, insidious form of emotional abuse at work. Mobbing is the latest wrinkle in bullying, a workplace phenomenon that’s been around as long as work itself. Where traditional workplace bullying usually involves a dysfunctional relationship between two co-workers, mobbing is the relentless persecution of one employee by a group. Mobbing is defined as a conscious effort to exclude, punish and humiliate a co-worker. It’s different from bullying, which is far more prevalent, is usually committed by one person targeting another and ends when the offender is transferred, fired or leaves the company. Mobbing starts with one or two perpetrators, then spreads like wildfire through an organization. You are being mobbed when colleagues attack your dignity, integrity and competence over a period of months or years. As the abuse accelerates, more co-workers unquestioningly accept the party line that you are unpleasant and inept and have no place in the organization. Such relentless persecution is often fuelled by envy, suspicion, gossip and innuendo and thrives in tumultuous organizations where bad bosses and sadistic employees are protected by apathetic management or watertight collective agreements, a climate in which good people are afraid to speak out for fear they will also be targeted. Unfortunately, this collective silence condones and even exacerbates the bullying; without a dissenting voice, perpetrators become even more emboldened. Based on the personal stories told to BCB, here’s how mobbing happens. One day, completely out of the blue, you’ll realize that your projects are winding down and you don’t have enough to do. Your new assignments seem designed to isolate you from your co-workers: either your workstation is moved or people no longer seek you out. As time passes, you may be deliberately excluded from meetings or not given enough time to prepare. Supervisors and peers routinely ignore all your questions and requests for support, set you impossible deadlines and unachievable targets, usurp your responsibilities, undermine your decisions, take credit for your work or spread false gossip about your conduct or ability to supervisors or senior management. A phenomenon long recognized in Europe, mobbing is on the rise in Canada due to the growing labour shortage, and that rise is particularly steep in the west. Experts say B.C. business leaders need to heed warnings about disturbing workplace conduct such as mobbing. If firms are to compete internationally for skilled workers, they must become coveted places to work. That means addressing ugly, often hidden issues affecting employee health and safety and demonstrating less tolerance for toxic behaviour during working hours. Vancouver employment and human-rights lawyer Sue Paish, who has dealt with numerous cases of workplace abuse and harassment, has a serious warning for B.C.’s employers. As companies scour the globe to replace retiring boomers from the shop floor to the executive suite, the result will inevitably be a more diverse workforce in terms of age, gender, religion and race. She wants to warn B.C.’s business community that a more diverse workforce will inevitably lead to more employee conflict – a surefire precursor to bullying and mobbing. And it’s trending up. In 2005, B.C. welcomed 44,000 immigrants, 7,000 more than in 2004. To help ease the workplace crunch, the provincial government launched a new program last year to link newcomers with job opportunities, and help them overcome barriers related to language proficiency, academic qualifications and skills upgrading. Paish warns that cultural diversity is well and good as long as newcomers are properly integrated into a healthy workplace. While the government may be making efforts to ease the transition, it won’t be enough. There must be a sincere commitment by management. “I’m concerned because we’ve struggled for 30-plus years to address issues raised by women in the workplace, and we’re still dealing with them today,” Paish says. “I don’t think employers have the luxury of time when it comes to managing the cultural issues they are about to face.” Her contention that diversity can fuel conflict in the workplace is supported by University of Waterloo researcher and mobbing expert Ken Westhues, who reports that many of the bullying targets he studies have foreign accents. BCBusiness first came across the mobbing phenomenon while researching an article on bad bosses (“Bad boss, bad boss”) for our December 2006 issue. After reviewing personal anecdotes on local websites, we were surprised when 21 people emailed us, describing long-term group-bullying experiences at work. Several referred to themselves as mobbing targets, which prompted us to dig deeper. The word “mobbing” turned up more than six million hits on Google, including a B.C.-based website, nobullyforme.ca, formed in 2003 by former Vancouver bullying targets to offer support and information to Canadians traumatized by co-workers.