AT THE MERCY OF THE MOB
Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
A summary of research on workplace mobbing 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.
In the early 1980s, a Swedish
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: mobbing.
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 it was.
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 boys.
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 before.
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 of one.
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 its aim.
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 and regret.
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 it takes.
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 mischief.
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.