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Recognizing and Stopping Workplace Mobbing

written by: Michelle Shuler Key•edited by: Marjory Pilley•updated: 6/21/2011

Recognizing and stopping workplace mobbing has been on the minds of international groups, including the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO), for years. Businesses in the U.S. are finally recognizing the issue, and can draw from the experience of other countries to work toward a solution.

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    Workplace Mobbing Defined

    Bullying was once considered a childhood problem, and was often shrugged off by those not on the receiving end. However, bullying has recently come to the forefront of America's consciousness, and several forms that affect adults -- including mobbing in the workplace -- have gained wide recognition as the serious issues they are.

    The first step in recognizing and stopping workplace mobbing is to create a clear definition. Employees who bully coworkers in this manner do not likely see anything wrong with their behavior, or may justify their actions by telling themselves that the coworker in question deserves this treatment. As an employer, you will have an easier time getting your employees to comprehend the seriousness of their actions if you can provide a specific definition.

    The United Nations actually considers workplace mobbing a form of psychological violence, and the ILO has been discussing this phenomenon for nearly 15 years on an international level. In a 2000 report titled “Mental Health in the Workplace: Situation Analysis: Finland," specific guidelines for workplace mobbing recognition include the systematic nature of the harassment, as well as a timetable.

    For the Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees, the behavior must occur weekly for six months or more, and is defined as “hostile and unethical communication." The ILO's quarterly publication, World of Work, addressed the issue as early as 1998. Some specific examples cited in an article titled “When Working Becomes Hazardous" include:

    • Criticizing or making disparaging remarks
    • Isolating an individual from the social aspects of the office
    • Spreading gossip or telling outright lies about an individual.

    Even in this 1998 article, the U.S. was listed as one of seven countries in which workplace mobbing was a problem, although the issue seemed most serious in Sweden, where the ILO estimated up to 15% of suicides could be attributed to this form of bullying.

    On paper, workplace mobbing is obviously a serious issue with potentially dire consequences. However, it may be difficult to recognize this behavior from within the office setting.

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    An Employer’s Responsibilities

    As an employer, discerning between bullying behaviors and problem employees can be particularly tricky. Some employees may Workplace mobbing victims feel self-conscious and uncomfortable isolate themselves by choice due to introverted tendencies, and when a specific employee is the target of complaints from multiple others the issue may, in fact, relate to that employee's performance.

    Recognizing and stopping mobbing in the workplace is your responsibility. Conscientious management requires that you sometimes investigate and mediate these situations. You cannot fall into the trap of taking accusations at face value, and are ethically bound to keep your own personal opinions about individual employees out of the equation. Your best course of action, then, is to evaluate the concrete facts about the targeted employee.

    In his book “Shameful Behaviors," author Tim Delaney defines the usual victims of workplace mobbing. Delaney’s explanation simplifies the matter immensely for supervisors, and makes the importance of identifying this behavior clear.

    According to Delaney, victims of workplace mobbing are likely to be your most valuable employees. Mob mentality results from a perceived threat. When an employee shows a level of intelligence, dedication or skill that exceeds that of coworkers, those coworkers lash out and use gossip or isolation to make the victim uncomfortable. When these tactics don't work, the bullies may take the situation to the next level by openly criticizing the victim. They will often even bring these issues up to a supervisor under the guise of concern.

    The importance of leaving your own personal opinions out of the issue cannot be emphasized enough. Bullies are often charming and charismatic, and may be very persuasive as they try to convince you that an individual is not performing well. Your obligation as a conscientious employer is to evaluate the work, and only the work, of the employee in question. If an employee's work is acceptable, and especially if the work is exceptional, then chances are the complainers are the true source of the problem.

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    What You Can Do

    Recognizing and stopping mobbing in the workplace starts with prevention. As with any other issue, clear written policies set the standard for employees and give you a reference should you need to take action.

    In Germany, the German Trade Union Federation lays out very specific guidelines prohibiting behaviors that restrict employees from self-expression and building social relationships. According to the journal article "Mopping up Mobbing - Legislate or Negotiate?" by Ian Graham, these guidelines also proscribe humiliation through sexual harassment or any other means, and require each business to designate a specific contact for complaints relating to workplace mobbing.

    Create workplace policies for your own office that echo these sentiments, and outline clear consequences for those found engaging in these behaviors. Use a gradient system that begins with verbal warning and moves to a written warning. Establish clear guidelines for repeat offenders up to and including termination. While this may seem heavy-handed, the alternative is allowing your least mature employees to continually drive off your most valuable workers.

    Once you have created these policies, inform your workforce. With guidelines in place, you may begin to use them to stop any current instances of workplace mobbing. It is imperative that you address the issue as a matter of policy rather than personality. Adult bullies are sadly quite similar to childhood bullies, and any “soft" attempts to mediate run the risk of making the situation worse. Written policies make it clear that bullies are offending not only their victims, but their employer. The latter is far more likely to make an impact.

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    Liimatainen, Marjo-Riitta (2000). Mental Health in the Workplace: Situation Analysis: Finland. International Labour Office. 92-2-112227-1

    International Labour Organization. "When Working Becomes Hazardous." World of Work. volume 26 (1998). Online archive.

    Delaney, Tim (2008). Shameful Behaviors. University Press of America. 9780761840886, 978-0761840886

    Renaut, Anne. "Moral Harrassment - Work Organization to Blame?" Labour Education. volume 133 (2003/4). Print.

    Graham, Ian. "Mopping up Mobbing - Legislate or Negotiate?" Labour Education. volume 133 (2003/4). Print.

    Image by Freedigitalphotos, Grauer Codrin