Workplace Harassment: Mob Mentality

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.


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,, formed in 2003 by former Vancouver bullying targets to offer support and information to Canadians traumatized by co-workers. [pagebreak] When we think of group bullying in B.C., it brings to mind two shameful local tragedies that made national headlines: the 1997 death of 14-year-old Reena Virk of Victoria, who was savagely attacked by a pack of teens and then drowned, and Mission’s Dawn Marie Wesley, also 14, who hanged herself in 2000 after being bullied at school. Unlike their playground and adolescent equivalents, workplace bullies and their supporters rarely lash out physically, observes the University of Waterloo’s Ken Westhues, a sociology professor whose books on the subject include The Envy of Excellence and The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education. Instead, he says, the “mature” bully’s weapons of choice are long-term social and psychological intimidation and manipulation, which can be as damaging as physical violence. Again, there are high-profile local examples. Last year, news reports described male members of Richmond’s Fire-Rescue Services using offensive, juvenile tactics against four female colleagues. It’s alleged that among other mobbing tactics, male firefighters broke into women’s lockers, scrawled threats and obscenities on locker walls, placed human excrement in work gear, shredded clothing and sprayed it with chemicals. When mobbing goes unchecked, it can push the victim to respond with violence, and, in extreme cases, that violence can escalate to murder. In 1999, Canadian Pierre Lebrun walked into work at an OC Transpo garage in Ottawa, shot and killed four co-workers, wounded two others and then turned the gun on himself. His mother later told an inquest a handful of colleagues had repeatedly teased him about his stutter. A coroner suggested that their thoughtless abuse pushed a man in an already fragile emotional state completely over the edge. Ironically, it’s in the unionized workplace – an environment where it’s very difficult to fire someone – that mobbing and bullying can go unchecked. Paish, who was hired by the City of Richmond to review its firefighter debacle, says unionized workers being mobbed by peers should not expect a lot by way of support from their unions. Such cases place unions in a direct conflict of interest: they are unable to show preference for one member over another. It’s one reason why bullying and harassment in the public sector are often ignored and left to fester, she says. The situation can sometimes go on for months and years, leaving employees who traditionally count on their union for support feeling especially disenchanted. Paish declines to discuss Richmond council’s reaction to her 57-page report but has plenty to say on the subject of workplace abuse. “It’s far more prevalent than most organizations are prepared to acknowledge,” she stresses. “People tend to think, ‘It’s not happening in my workplace,’ but the truth is it’s probably happening down the hall and in the next office. If it’s being dealt with at all, it’s being dealt with in confidence.” Because the little Canadian research that exists on mobbing has focused mainly on universities, where group abuse of academics seems prevalent, it’s tough to attach firm numbers to the incidences of mobbing in B.C. workplaces as a whole. However, the Canada Safety Council says workplace bullying (which includes mobbing) is far more prevalent than other destructive behaviours covered by legislation, such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Clearly, what’s happening here in Canada reflects a disturbing global trend. (The issue of mobbing became so public in Italy that it was the subject of a 2004 award-winning film, Mi piace lavorare [I Love to Work], written and directed by Francesca Comencini.) According to a 2006 report ­issued by the International Labour Organization, abuse in the workplace has reached epidemic levels in some countries and is taking a major toll on their economies, due to increased absenteeism and sick leave. “Bullying, harassment, mobbing and allied behaviors can be just as damaging as outright physical violence,” says the report. “Today, the instability of many types of jobs places huge pressures on workplaces, and we’re seeing more of these forms of violence.” It goes on to cite a U.S. study that estimates one in five American workers has experienced mobbing or destructive bullying in the past year. Instead of focusing on your performance, your evaluations (if you receive them at all) come in the form of angry, critical tirades, based on unsubstantiated, personal comments from peers or supervisors. In all likelihood, you will learn you have “an attitude problem” and are not “a team player.” As the mobbing continues unabated, this negative criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You turn into a physical and emotional wreck and dread getting out of bed. After enduring months of isolation and abuse, your work and your personal relationships suffer, and, like many mobbing targets, you may find yourself considering suicide. For three years, Jane (not her real name) had successfully trained and coordinated word-processing teams at a mid-size Vancouver law firm without any problems. Then she began to experience bullying by her female boss. When her firm converted to new word-processing software, Jane says she was refused training, deliberately kept out of the loop, isolated from co-workers and shunned by colleagues who had once been her friends. “In hindsight, it was a cynical attempt to make my work conditions so unbearable that I would quit,” she says. “I did reach out to my teammates, but my effort met with aloofness and avoidance.” Jane struggled on in this uncomfortable environment for six months, when her boss (who was also the company’s HR supervisor) began berating her behind closed doors. She accused Jane of incompetence and of having “a bad attitude,” although she never gave specific examples. Jane, who claims she had a spotless employ­ment record prior to this conflict, says she reported her mobbing to the office manager and asked him for a performance review. But it never came. Struggling to complete her assignments without appropriate tools or direction, Jane spiralled, wracked with stress, insomnia and depression. When things were at their worst, she asked a former colleague what she had done to upset her and was stunned when the woman bitterly replied, “I hate you, just because you are you.” Although Jane reports that her supervisor later apologized for making unfounded comments about the quality of her work and her conduct at the office, the painful experience has left Jane, now 57, emotionally fragile and unable to work full-time. Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann identified the mobbing phenomenon more than 20 years ago after investigating the impact of workplace bullying dished out by supervisors, peers and subordinates. According to his research, 92 per cent of mobbing targets develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at levels similar to those who have experienced combat, rape and prison camps. He also estimated that 12 per cent of Swedes who commit suicide have experienced mobbing. While some European countries have introduced anti-workplace-bullying laws, Quebec recently became the only jurisdiction in North America to adopt specific anti-mobbing legislation. Westhues, himself a target of mobbing earlier in his academic career, says it’s not surprising that the phenomenon was first identified in Scandinavia, a region generally characterized by a high standard of living, a highly educated workforce and relatively high job security. “On the outside, these countries appear to control people’s nasty, aggressive impulses,” he notes. “In such a situation, workers act out their aggressive impulses in slow, quiet, sneaky, underhanded, collective ways that define mobbing.” He suggests Canada has been slower to recognize the phenomenon because we are influenced by a suck-it-up, don’t-be-a-baby mentality that also prevails south of our border. [pagebreak] It took Stephen Hill more than a year to regain his health and confidence after experiencing mobbing while working at a Vancouver university bookstore. After settling with his employer, he retrained as an employment counsellor and, in addition to his work with unemployed clients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, he now helps others understand and survive workplace bullying. Through a website,, Hill and fellow former bullying victim Karen Learmouth assemble the latest international bullying information and resources, publish a monthly newsletter and help establish regional bullying support groups. There are currently four in Canada. Hill says they want targets to know they are not alone, that they are not crazy and that a broad range of health problems, such as headaches and insomnia – and, in later stages, PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating – are all linked to abusive treatment at work. Contrary to popular opinion, those most vulnerable to mobbing are not subservient, easily intimidated or insecure, he stresses. In fact, they are generally well-liked, principled, technically competent, co-operative and non-confrontational. “A bully considers such personal strengths and abilities a threat and decides to cut them down,” he says. “As targets usually do nothing to merit dismissal and tend to ignore subtle cues to leave, they are subjected to harassment designed to force them out.” A recent No Bully For Me online survey concluded that 20 per cent of Canada’s bullying targets are male, 80 per cent are female and 66 per cent are aged 35 to 55. Who are the bullies in our midst? Twenty-three per cent of No Bully For Me’s respondents said they were abused by a woman, 41 per cent by a man and 36 per cent attributed their bullying to both sexes. Fifty-three per cent said the person initiating the bullying was a manager or supervisor, and 42 per cent cited a co-worker or peer. According to our previous research on workplace harassment, experts have categorized bad bosses into seven types: the angry, aggressive jerk; the arrogant, self-righteous know-it-all; the charming, two-faced backstabber; the silent grenade (someone who is wound tight and ready to blow); the micro-managing control freak; the penny-pinching profiteer; and the opportunistic manipulator. While such stereotypes are quite often accurate, bully watchers like Hill say it’s better to recognize and respond firmly to the first signs of abuse than to try to identify a potential tormentor. Some bullies are outwardly aggressive and relish playing visible, leading roles; others operate below the radar, using gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and other non-verbal messages to ridicule, demean or threaten their targets. Most experts agree that such devious tyrants are the most dangerous. They know what they want but hide their objective beneath a veneer of charm, pretending to act in the best interest of others, especially their employers. Often, only the target sees their darker side. Some bullies are narcissists and sociopaths, esteemed by their bosses for the very qualities that make them top-notch bullies. Their ability to “show well” to senior management is a huge problem for anyone hoping to leapfrog a bully boss in the hopes of finding support and relief from someone higher up the totem pole. All too often, in-house disputes that don’t obviously contravene human-rights or labour laws (covering workplace harassment or discrimination based on age, race, sex or sexual orientation) may be shrugged off by management as personality conflicts and brushed under the carpet. This common misperception might explain why a survey done by the U.S. and Canada Workplace Bullying Institute found that only 18 per cent of targets who reported abusive misconduct to their bully’s manager received the help they requested. Forty-two per cent said their boss compounded the problem, and 40 per cent said he or she did nothing. But while larger firms are more likely to have policies around acceptable workplace conduct and harassment, they also offer more hidden corners where conflict and abuse can incubate. Julie, a senior programmer in a major international software developer’s Vancouver office, tells us mobbing was not an isolated event in her workplace. “While [the mobbing] was happening to me, another colleague, an older man, was experiencing a similar situation,” she writes in an email. “I read his last evaluation in which his mana­ger said he was inferior to his peers. In fact, he did the work of three to five people: he was a ­valued member of the team and very well respected, except by management. Some people tried to help him but he eventually went on sick leave and left the company. He was so traumatized by his experience that he can’t even drive anywhere near the office.” Hill says bullying targets are usually high achievers who think, “If I work harder, I will make this situation better… Because we tend to stay longer in a toxic workplace, we are much more damaged when we do get out and begin to recover.” In their efforts to get justice, mobbing targets often sacrifice everything, he says, including health, family and career. While the decision to fight or quit depends on an individual’s financial, social and emotional strength, based on his own debilitating experience, Hill recommends that bullying targets move on, rather than stay on principle and risk being scarred for life. Through No Bully For Me, Hill is lobbying for a series of nationwide anti-mobbing initiatives, including a workplace-bullying hotline; an updated list of worst workplaces; a network of support groups; and a register of psychologists, counsellors and other professionals who understand the impact of workplace bullying and can help targets recover and successfully return to work. “Interestingly, I think the economy is actually doing us a favour,” says Hill. “Employers are starting to take workplace abuse more seriously because it’s a highly competitive environment, and they want to attract and retain staff. As a result, we are talking about these issues a lot more and bringing them out into the open.” Taking a Stand You’re the target of mobbing at work, you’re losing sleep at night and there’s no relief in sight. Before you give up and quit – or end up on stress leave – consider these strategies:

  • If you are being isolated or bullied, do not quietly endure the abuse. Find advice and support at websites such as nobully and
  • Be proactive. As soon as you experience any sort of abuse or start to feel uncomfortable with the way someone behaves, ask your tormentor to sit down and talk with you. Stay calm and unemotional; explain briefly and respectfully why you feel targeted, how it makes you feel and stress that it is unacceptable. Experts say this may just resolve your problem; some bullies are socially inept and do not fully understand the impact of their behaviour.
  • If a reasonable request for fair, respectful treatment meets with unreasonable anger, do not retaliate; some of the worst bullies will use your emotional outbursts against you.
  • Being flexible and agreeable will not help you deal with people involved in mobbing. They see such qualities as a sign of weakness and may ramp up the abuse. Stay firm in your convictions.
  • Do not immediately approach your tormentor’s boss. Bosses often view a bully quite differently and may dismiss your complaints.

If the harassment or bullying does not stop, check company policy. There may be written procedures that you need to follow. Keep detailed records of the bullying and when and how you have tried to stop it.

  • If there is no written policy, approach your company’s HR professional and, if necessary, seek legal advice.
  • Confide in trusted co-workers; seek supporters who have witnessed the mobbing or have experienced similar behaviour from your tormentor.
  • For the sake of your own mental health, be realistic. You may not win, no matter how just your cause. Fight the good fight as long as possible, and then move on.
  • Don’t ask for a reference from a bully; find others to write letters of support.
  • Don’t let the experience permanently damage your future. If you are having trouble moving on with your life, seek professional help.
  • If you witness someone being mobbed, report what you see to HR or management. And always, if possible, offer support to the mobbing target.

Corporate Politics to Beat the Mob If your company has not implemented respectful workplace policies supported by company-wide training that includes effective strategies to combat harassment, bullying and mobbing, now is the time. When drafting policies that reflect your corporate values, avoid devising toothless decrees full of jargon and legalese. Instead, says human-rights lawyer Sue Paish, policies governing employee conduct and workplace safety should be enshrined in corporate DNA, be driven by a sincere commitment from management and be quickly and easily understood by someone new to the organization. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to draft solid policies, Paish suggests using an experienced consultant. If you truly want to create a conflict-free, bully-proof and inclusive corporate culture, everyone in the organization must understand their role in creating and maintaining a healthy workplace. That means modelling respectful communication and acceptable conduct from the top down, teaching supervisors how to recognize conflict and nip it in the bud, ensuring every employee understands what is considered acceptable behaviour and investigating and resolving every complaint.