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You may think bullying only happens among children who haven’t matured enough to handle their emotions appropriately, but unfortunately, there is no age limit on bullying. “Mobbing” is the term used to describe group bullying or harassment that happens in the workplace. Mobbing contributes to a toxic work environment where some employees may feel unsafe and unmotivated to contribute.
A survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute revealed that 48.6 million workers in the U.S. were affected by mobbing in 2021. The survey also reported that targets of workplace mobbing are typically women aged 32 to 55, members of a marginalized group, and those who are well-educated, competent and challenge the status quo. In addition, women are most likely to harass other women, and men are most likely to bully other men.
What Is Workplace Mobbing?
Mobbing is used as a verb form of the word “mob” and refers to the practice of a group of people targeting an individual with harassment. The word may be new, but the behavior is not. “Rate-buster” is a word once used to describe ambitious workers who excelled at factory jobs in the 1940s. Rate-busters were disliked by co-workers because their achievements affected the pay rates of other workers. These extra-productive employees were harassed and coerced until their production rates came in line with those of co-workers.
Today’s “rate-busters,” workers who are targeted for harassment, tend to be people of color, women, and high performers. Workplace mobbing not only affects the individual target, but it can make other employees feel intimidated or unsafe. It also disincentivizes employees from excelling at their jobs.
Types of Workplace Mobbing
Harassment can come in many forms, but there are generally three specific types of workplace mobbing to be aware of:
- Physical mobbing includes not only aggression toward a person, but also disrespectful handling or destruction of their property.
- Social mobbing refers to online bullying and isolating a person from social groups.
- Verbal mobbing includes any type of verbal abuse, such as spreading rumors, making hurtful comments directly to the individual, yelling or threatening.
Workplace Mobbing Tactics
Some workplace mobbing tactics are subtle, while others are more obvious. Mobbing techniques may include:
- Persistent criticism without cause
- Purposefully excluding the person from work meetings and other work events
- Ignoring the person’s ideas and contributions
- Blaming the person for problems at work without facts
- Any behavior that discriminates
- Adding extra challenges or obstacles to their workload, for example, requiring them to come in early for no reason
- Starting or spreading gossip
- Passive-aggressive behavior and insults
Targeting a person’s social media accounts is also a workplace mobbing tactic, even though it does not happen at work. Negative social media and/or false online information not only affects an individual’s personal life, but it can also have a negative impact on their work status and career.
Causes of Workplace Mobbing
As with all types of bullying and abuse, workplace mobbing is about power and control. The individuals leading or participating in the mobbing are attempting to gain and maintain power and control over the victim. Abuse and mistreatment are never justified. Whether the victim of mobbing is an unpleasant person or they are simply a high-achieving individual, ganging up on one person to make their work life — and personal life — miserable is unacceptable. There are many factors that can exacerbate the behaviors, but modding is caused by the individuals choosing to mistreat someone else. Some workplace factors that may encourage mobbing include:
- A stressful workplace
- Low job satisfaction
- High workloads and long hours
- Competition-based performance
- Short deadlines
- Group-based commissions
- Non-existent or unenforced anti-bullying practices
- Employees feel threatened by their target
- Sexism, racism and other types of discrimination
Low self-esteem, jealousy, and other psychological factors may also contribute to workplace mobbing. One study on bullying in the workplace concluded that workers with low self-esteem may be jealous of coworkers who excel and retaliate by organizing others to join them in group bullying.
The Effects of Workplace Mobbing
When an adult is being bullied at work, it’s easy to think the problem is all in their head. They may question if they are overreacting or doing something to provoke co-workers. At the same time, they might worry about the long-term effects of the behavior. Will they lose their job, or will a co-worker actually hurt them physically?
Being the victim of workplace mobbing can affect a person’s mental and physical health. They may show symptoms such as:
- Pain, especially neck or back pain
- Muscle pain, stiff muscles
- Sleep disturbances
- Fatigue, exhaustion
- Cardiovascular problems
- Suicidal ideation
Since most workplace mobbing involves people of color and other minorities, it also threatens an organization’s efforts toward inclusion and diversity.
Secondary to the personal toll workplace mobbing can take, it can affect the productivity of others. When the workplace is viewed as hostile and unsupportive to the needs of employees, mobbing may lead to:
- High turnover
- Low employee morale
- Poor service and decreased productivity
- Increase in mistakes
- Increase in training costs for new hires
- Increase in operational costs
Workplace mobbing can also lead to legal action. Human Resources should take mobbing complaints seriously not only to protect the company from a lawsuit but because ignoring bullying opens the door for other types of harassment to take place.
Is Workplace Mobbing Legal?
Workplace mobbing is not yet considered illegal in every state. Though every company should have policies protecting workers from harassment, those policies are sometimes limited to the harassment of employees by managers and supervisors. The Healthy Workplace Bill is a growing, grassroots movement to help eliminate workplace mobbing and other forms of abuse in the work environment.
The bill was written by Suffolk University Law Professor David C. Yamada and has been introduced in legislation in 31 states. If passed, the Healthy Workplace Bill would allow civil lawsuits against perpetrators of workplace bullying as well as expose employers to legal action. The bill is closely modeled on sexual harassment and racial discrimination laws that exist currently.
Making workplace mobbing illegal is a huge step toward addressing the issue, but it will not solve the problem. Employers, HR staff, and ethical co-workers must expand their awareness of and policies protecting against all forms of bullying.
What to Do If You Are Being Bullied at Work
If you are the target of workplace mobbing, remember that it is not your fault. Try to remain calm, and do not engage or retaliate. Speak with an HR representative, and follow your company’s policies for reporting and documenting harassment.
Take care of your mental health. Speak with friends or family members or seek the help of a mental health professional. You might also consider participating in an online or in-person support group for victims of workplace bullying.
How to Stop Workplace Mobbing If You’re a Manager
There are many steps you can take to stop workplace mobbing as a manager. First, learn what your employer’s policy on workplace bullying is. If there isn’t one, work with Human Resources to develop one. Other concrete steps include:
- Promote a positive work environment that supports the physical and mental health needs of your staff (adequate sick days, personal time off, mental health leave, and healthcare)
- Choose cooperation-based projects instead of competition-based ones
- Make sure all employees have read, understand, and have signed off on your company’s policies about workplace bullying
- If a victim of bullying comes to you, respect their confidentiality
Having a zero-tolerance policy for bullying is a start, but policies are meaningless without follow through. Conduct educational training regularly, and follow up on mobbing situations you have seen firsthand or those that have been reported. Hold individuals who have harassed or mistreated other employees accountable for their actions.
The Nobu wellness app can help employees and managers cope with mental health concerns. The Nobu app provides evidence-based teletherapy options from licensed health professionals.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- Bulut, Sefa. Hihi, Sondos. “Bullying in the Workplace: The Psychological Causes and Effects of Bullying in the Workplace.” Asclepius. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Gillett, Hope. “What Is Mobbing at Work and How Do You Stop It?” Psych Central. Accessed August 12, 2022.
- Healthy Workplace Bill. “WBI Healthy Workplace Bill To Prevent & Correct Abuse at Work.” Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Namie, Gary. “2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.” Workplace Bullying Institute. Accessed August 8, 2022.
- Oxford Dictionary. “Rate-buster.” Accessed August 9, 2022.
- Sansone, Randy A., Sansone, Lori A. “Workplace Bullying: A Tale of Adverse Consequences.” National Library of Medicine, January 2015. Accessed August 9, 2022.
- World Health Organization. “Mental Health in the Workplace.” Accessed August 12, 2022.