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The Workplace as a War Zone:  Mobbing and Bullying
by Victoria A. Hoevemeyer


Intellectually I have understood, for a long time, the ramifications of bullying and mobbing in the workforce.  Sadly, it’s a problem that, in some organizations, has gotten worse.  The recession has solidified the “I bully because I can” behavior in some leaders as well as in non-management bullies.  What I didn’t realize, until I had an opportunity to talk to people who have been bullied, is how few people—at all levels of the organization—actually understand what bullying and mobbing is,  the impact that it had on the victim and the organization, and what can be done about it. 

While we would all like to think of the work environment as one in which people support each other in the pursuit of individual career goals, where teams worked together for the good of the company, and where individual goals and values were in sync with organizational goals and values, the reality is that there are far too many places where these things are often not true.  Even worse, there are some places where being flogged in a dungeon five days a week for eight hours is the equivalent of what a person’s work environment is like.

There are, unfortunately, places were people deal, on a daily basis, with being

  • Shouted at, sworn at, or otherwise verbally abused

  • Made the target for humiliated or embarrassment

  • Stalked

  • The target of ongoing/routine practical jokes

  • Erroneously blamed for errors

  • Excluded—either socially of by having work contributions ignored

  • Physically intimidated/dealing with another person’s or group’s aggression

  • Subject to the purposeful withholding of information or resource

  • The unknowing recipient of thrown objected

The phenomenon is called “mobbing,” (when done in groups) or bullying (when done by a single individual).  Simply stated, it is the persistent, prolonged, systematic emotional abuse—either subtle or insidious—of an individual in the workplace by one or more staff members.  While it is usually done face-to-face, there is an alarming increase in the amount of bullying that is done through electronic communication (i.e., social media).

Typically mobbing or bullying

  • Involves a co-worker, direct report, boss, and/or a group of people bullying or picking on someone to either make them miserable or to force them out of the workplace (more often the former than the later)

  • Is accomplished through the use of unjustified accusations, rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting, isolation, ostracism, ridicule, denigration, and/or terror that is malicious, nonsexual, nonracial, general harassment

  • Is found at all levels in organizations and in all types of organizations

  • Uses subtle or violent/hostile, direct or indirect, verbal and nonverbal communication, interfering actions, and/or acts of omission (e.g., withholding resources, “forgetting” to share information)

  • Portrays the victim—who is often one of the best workers—as being the one “at fault.”

  • Results not only in interference with the employee’s work and the employer’s business interest, but also devastates the victim, destroys morale, and negatively impacts productivity.

It’s a phenomenon that is rarely talked about, but impossible to forget if you have ever experienced it.  And more of your employees than you realize may be impacted by it.  A study by the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention showed that one in three employees personally experience mobbing at some point in their career.  Even more disturbing is the fact that almost half of all employees in the U.S. report either being bullied or seeing co-workers being bullied.

Why people bully or mob

There is no acceptable reason for mobbing or bullying; however, research has shown a wide variety of reasons that people do it.

  1. Irrational dislike of the victim.  “I just don’t like [person].”  In most situations, the basis of mobbing is not remotely rational.  It could be the person’s hair color, the person’s walk, the type of shoes worn, and other completely irrational reasons.  This, as with other mobbing excesses, has more to do with the perpetrator’s need to harm others than specific aspects of the victim.

  2. Thrill seeking.  Some bullies just simply enjoys doing it.  Yes, as sick as it might sound, some people get a kick out of bullying and seeing their victims suffer.  These sadistic torturers actually don’t want their victims to leave—they want the victims to stay around so the torture can continue and build.

  3. Schoolyard bully.  Some people who demonstrate mobbing behavior are simply grown-up versions (note, I didn’t say mature) of the schoolyard bully.  They tend to be bored extraverts, looking for an introverted, conscientious person whom they could victimize.  These people often don’t have enough to do to keep them out of trouble.

  4. Prejudice.  Some people mob because of prejudices they have, including social, gender, racial, and/or ethnic biases. They victimize anyone they perceive as different in any way.  For example, a white male may mob another white male because “your mama is nothing but trailer trash.”

  5. Informal or formal power.  Some people bully simply because they can.  They may have formal coercive power (e.g., the boss berating the employee in front of others and belittling their efforts), expert power (e.g., a person who possesses highly valued expertise mocks or humiliates someone who does not have this expertise by calling them names), or some kind of informal power.  Also remember that any person at any level who can engender fear in the hearts of others is a bully.

  6. Jealousy. People who mob for this reason think, “Nobody is really that [talented/happy/ethical/etc.]” and set about to prove it by “breaking” their victim.  (And then they get the “pleasure” of saying, “See, I told you, he wasn’t that talented/happy/ ethical/etc.”)  The jealousy of the victim’s personal or work life can be real or perceived.

  7. Feeling threatened.  This person uses bullying as an ego-saving measure.  Something—real or perceived—in the victim is threatening the bully’s self-concept/self-worth and/or the world that he has built in the organization. 

  8. Hide feelings of inadequacy.  Many bullies have extreme feelings of inadequacy.  The only way they have to “level the playing field” is by bringing the victim down or to demoralize the victim to the extent that the bully feels superior.

  9. Workplace reward system.  Sadly (and generally unconsciously) some workplaces reward the behaviors of bullies, labeling their behavior as “go-get-‘em” and assertive. 

What we know about mobs/bullies

I wish I could give you a nice, clean profile that would help you root out any bullies or mobs in your organization, but that list simply doesn’t exist.  Some general guidelines around mobs and bullies, though, include the facts that they are:

  • Just as likely to be women as men.  It’s not unusual to find a mobs composed of men and women.

  • More likely to be opportunistic than psychopathic.

  • More likely to bully women than men (regardless of whether the bully is a woman or a man).

  • Most likely to be a victim’s boss (about 75% of bullies), but could be a co-worker (about 25% of bullies).

  • Likely, when confronted, to claim that they didn’t know they were harming anyone.

  • Just as likely to go after strong people for an assault. This is often driven by the fact that most bullies feel inadequate and have created a persona of superiority.  When they come across genuinely talented, creative, confident people, they are often threatened and seek to “prove” the falseness of their victim.

  • On the lookout for genuinely nice people.  Their competitive nature and their belief that they live in a winner-take-all world makes them believe that “nice” people are too soft to stand up to them.

  • Believers in “survival of the fittest,” so look for the “weak” people in the organization who won’t fight back.

  • Likely to have a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, where only the victim sees the Mr. Hyde side of the bully.

In short, bullies look for anyone who threatens their fragile sense of self.  It could be that the victim is an outstanding worker, popular with others, an expert in a given area, has a strong set of guiding values, is intelligent, is honest, has a strong sense of integrity, or it could simply be that the victim happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Individual and organizational consequences of bullying

At the most basic level, mobbing/bullying is emotional abuse.  It has its most serious consequences on the individual being bullied, but impacts the way others perceive the organization.  The others can be friends and family that the victim talks to; it can be the perception that employees (present or former) have that the organization condones the behavior.   Add to this the potential damage to your company’s reputation when former employees who left because they were being bullied start telling others about their experience.  The old adage used to be that one unhappy person will tell ten other people; however, with the rise of social media, that one unhappy person could end up tweeting—or sharing their experience via other social media sites—with thousands of talented people who you may no longer be able to attract.

And if this isn’t enough to shock you, let’s look briefly at the bottom line impact of bullying and mobbing in the workforce.  When you add up all the costs (including lost work time due to illness,  poor productivity, disengaged employees, increased medical claims, cost of replacing employees, etc) the price tag can be staggering:

  • Michael Harrison, Ph.D. of Harrison Psychological Associates reports that the business cost of bullying is more than $180 million in lost time and productivity.

  • Research by Gary Namie, Ph.D., founder of the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, indicates that 82% of the victims leave the organization, resulting in replacement costs than range from one to three times the employee’s salary.

  • Heinz Leymann, Ph.D., a pioneer researcher on workplace bullying, has estimated the cost of a single bully to be up to $100,000 per year (Mobbing and Psychological Terror At Workplaces.  Violence and Victims, 1990).

Each of us, as organizational leaders, is responsible for looking for some of the indicators that an individual might be the victim of bullying. The victim might

  • Appear to be more embarrassed or anxious than usual.

  • Start doubting themselves and failing to take action, taking more time to double-check their work before taking actions, questioning their own actions or forgetfulness.

  • Come to believe that he is—at least partially—to blame for the bullying.

  • Begin to demonstrate behaviors associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

  • Become depressed and even suicidal.  (Yes, people have committed suicide over this.)

  • Experience a wide range of physical maladies—headaches, weight gain/loss, worsening allergies, skin disorders, etc.

  • Use more of her PTO (especially for short-term illnesses) than is typical for the person

Counting on co-worker support

Unfortunately, you can’t count on a victim’s co-workers to provide assistance against the bully.  While “logic” and our beliefs in the decency of human nature may lead us to believe that others will consistently come to the aid of the underdog, this is not necessarily true.  Some of the reasons why co-workers fail to act include:

  • The bully has threatened others who might come to the aid of the victim.

  • The bully has created a culture of fear around speaking out against him.

  • Others fear the reprisal of the bully.

  • Others don’t have the courage to stand up to the bully.

  • Others are simply expecting that, at any time, the victim is going to stand up for herself.

  • Others simply deny—in their own minds—that the bullying is happening.

  • Others believe that if they don’t act, they won’t become victims too.

  • People are bullied or mobbed behind closed doors so no one sees it.

  • The bully is able to undermine the victim, making the victim look like a problem employee.

  • Others have their weak spots too and fear the bully or mob turning on them.

  • Most bullies are skilled manipulators of others.

  • Some people get a perverse sense of satisfaction out of seeing others in distress.

  • Many people are apathetic.

The real scary thing as you read through this list is that it can evoke mental images of significant historical events.  Hitler was a skilled manipulator.  Ancient Roman leaders created a great empire by killing those who opposed their actions.  Stalin swiftly disposed of anyone that he determined to be an enemy of the state.  More recent examples include people such as Saddam Hussein (Iraq) or Augusto Pinochet (Chile).  The same fears that allowed these people to become such powerful bullies are the same basic fears that enable bullies and mobs to survive in organization today.

Some signs that you may have a bullying or mobbing problem

Unfortunately, I can’t simply lay out a checklist for you because there is no definitive answer (e.g., “if you answered ‘yes’ to at least 10 of these questions, you probably have a bullying/mobbing problem”).  It is also possible that some of the signs that appear to be bullying/mobbing on the surface are actually indicative of other—or additional—organizational issues.  However, if you notice any of the following, it would certainly be worthwhile to do some digging to discover the root cause of the problem.

  1. Group norms are developing that do not support—or run contrary—to the culture or values of your organization. 

  2. There is fear, tension, or mistrust between or within formal or informal work groups that cannot be logically and acceptably explained.

  3. The organization has gone through a major change (e.g. new location, reorganization, downsizing, changes to major processes, change in C-suite leadership).  Major changes can create an environment that is sufficiently in flux to allow for the development of a bully or mob.  (Of course, don’t rule out the possibility that it could simply be that the change was not well managed.)

  4. You are experiencing an increase in “unacceptable turnover.”  That is, your solid and outstanding performers are leaving.  If you find the reason they are giving for leaving to be suspect, you might consider the possibility of bullying or mobbing.  It may not be that they are the victim, simply that they are seeing it go on and are tired of being in an organization that “condones” that behavior.

  5. An employee’s behavior suddenly changes.  Generally, a person is not going to go from being a happy, gregarious, productive employee to being a reserved, depressed, withdrawn marginal performer in a relatively short period of time.  While the behavior change may be the result of something going on in the employee’s personal life, it is a behavior change that needs to be investigated.

  6. There is fairly rapid turnover in a particular position.  If you believe that you are hiring highly qualified candidates, but they leave after a short period of time, bullying may be the cause.  It is likely that it’s the manager, but it could be co-workers or other stakeholder(s).

  7. A moderately talented, toe-the-line employee is, all of a sudden, coming up with really great ideas.  It’s possible the employee has simply just hit his stride; but it could also be that he is stealing and taking credit for someone else’s ideas.

  8. An individual who is a dependable employee is, all of a sudden, calling in sick.  Again, this could be the result of a personal problem, but it could be that she simply could not face coming into work and being bullied. 

  9. The organization, or a specific department, has a cut-throat reputation.  This situation is fertile ground for bullies because it is an environment where “doing whatever is necessary” for a promotion, resources, etc. is perfectly acceptable.

  10. The employees in a particular work group, informal group, or work area are spending more time standing around whispering with each other, acting suspiciously, or appearing to work together even though there is no work issue that would bring these people together.  This could be the sign of a mob getting together to discuss their most recent victimization or plan their next move.

  11. All of a sudden, the manager starts complaining that an employee who used to be a solid to exemplary employee has become a “problem child.” 

  12. You find that when the boss is around people are quiet, or even depressed; but people perk up when the boss is out of the office for the day/week.

  13. A person who normally shows up for meetings and is on time all of a sudden either isn’t showing up or arrives late.  While it may be a symptom of other things going on a work (e.g., workload, meeting conflicts), it may be that the bully is forgetting to tell the person about meeting times/dates, changes, etc.

Take Action

Prevention is the best medicine, so don’t wait to discover a bully or mob before you take action.  Not only is it the right thing to do, but it may save you from having to face an EEO hostile work environment lawsuit.

  1. When you identify a bully, be very careful about buying into their lines of “I didn’t realize I was doing that!  I am so sorry” or “I certainly didn’t intend to bully him.  I think he just misunderstood what I was saying” and similar diversionary tacticsFor the most part, bullies are bullies and they are going to continue to be bullies as long as they are in your organization.  Most bullies do not reform.  Taking swift action sends the message through the organization that bullying and mobbing will not be tolerated.  “Swift action” may vary depending upon the intensity of the infraction.  There may be some actions which call for immediate termination.  However, you may decide that, for some infractions, your first step is a problem-solving-based counseling session where they are confronted with their behavior, provided with an opportunity to develop effective skills, and made aware of the consequences of repeated behavior.  
  1. Establish an anti-bullying policy that clearly states what bullying is, provides examples of acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviors, states that the organization supports the rights of employees to work in an environment free of bulling and mobbing, provides a confidential process for reporting bullying or mobbing, assures those who report bullies or mobs will not be retaliated against as long as they are reporting in good faith, provides suggestions to employees on how to handle a bully or mob (victim tips as well as tips for observers), and clearly states the consequences of bullying and mobbing.
  1. Consider adding an item or two on bullying and mobbing into your annual employee engagement/satisfaction survey.  If there are disconcerting results that come back, make sure that employees know what the results were and what actions you are planning on taking as a result of the perceived problem. Then make sure you take the promised action.  Otherwise you are sending a message to the bullies that they can get away with bullying—and you might even see an increase in occurrences.
  1. Provide training to employees on all aspects of the policy and ensure that they have the interpersonal skills to deal with workplace bullies and mobs.  Consider having case examples of both subtle and obvious bullying in the workplace that participants read through, discuss to determine whether it's mobbing/bullying, and, if it is, what they victim could do, etc.  It is also recommended that you have an individual sign-off sheet that states that the person received a copy of the policy, attended training, understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and agrees to comply with the policy (similar to what most organization have done with harassment training).  Then put the signed form in the employee’s file.  And don’t stop at a one-time training program—add it to your list of ongoing (e.g., annual) training topics.
  1. Include a brief section in your orientation process on the bullying policy and make sure that the new hires sign off on the acknowledgement of having received the policy and understand it.
  1. Consider using validated selection tools that screen for aggression and other bully-related behaviors.

What you do, and how much you do, is up to you.  But ignoring it won’t make it go away—it will only enable its proliferation. Bullies and mobs will continue to victimize as long as there are minimal or no consequences for their behavior.  So the question becomes:  What will you do to send the message loud and clear that bullying and mobbing will not be tolerated in your workplace?


The Author

Victoria Hoevemeyer

Victoria Hoevemeyer is the owner of Delta Consulting in Palatine, Illinois.  She has provided organizational development interventions and training/ development programs for service, healthcare, CCRCs, education, transportation, retail, and light and heavy manufacturing organizations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, and Illinois.  She is the author of High-Impact Interview Questions and a co-author of First-Job Survival Guide, in addition to being published on a wide variety of human resources topics in a range of professional journals.


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Copyright 2010 by Victoria Hoevemeyer. All rights reserved.

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