Beyond Bullying

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Surviving Workplace Mobbing: Identify the Stages

The stages of grief may help mobbing targets identify and heal their own losses.

For targets of workplace bullying who suffer severe psychological and social pressure, there are many resources and trained professionals to help them. But for targets of workplace mobbing, which is a form of group bullying that can have even greater impacts on one’s psychological well-being and career, there are far fewer resources. Moreover, few mental health professionals are trained to recognize mobbing, much less adress its impacts. 

As someone who receives phone calls and emails from mobbing targets on a regular basis, and having survived a particularly egregious case of workplace mobbing, I have come to see that how a mobbing target heals and recovers from mobbing varies, depending on the psychological stage of grief they are in when they seek help. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously demonstrated that grief is a profound and patterned state of psychological stress and depression associated with the loss of a loved one. Not everyone who is grieving experiences all of the stages or even the same sequence of stages, yet the patterned emotional responses to death and loss are common to most humans. 

When applied to mobbing, where loss of one’s reputation, professional identity, job, economic base and career are put at risk, these stages may be meaningless in the early phases of collective aggression. Indeed, in the early stages of collective aggression, targets are often unaware that others are gossiping about them, or that leadership has marked them for elimination. To the extent they are aware a mob is forming, they often dismiss the red flags that indicate group aggression is gaining momentum and that the target’s elimination from the workplace is inevitable.

By the time a worker realizes that they are being targeted by an ever-growing group of hostile coworkers and managers, saving their job may be too late. But identifying where they are at emotionally in their response to the mobbing, may help them gain control of their emotional responses—and hence their career. In what follows, I discuss these stages of grief and consider how they apply to mobbing.

Denial The first stage of grief is denial and for mobbing targets, this important stage is critical. The signs a mob is forming include any action on the part of management to formally criticize, investigate, warn, suspend, terminate or report a worker for wrongdoing. It may take the form of a harsh evaluation, a verbal rebuke, or a formal charge of misconduct. When this happens, the worker is wise to both recognize the potential damage that will come from such an action, and to respond as non-aggressively and discretely as possible. This latter action may be counter-intuitive for some workers who respond to such professional threats proactively, particularly if the managerial actions are unjust and retaliatory. But the worker who responds swiftly and assertively to managerial abuses is very often the worker who is swiftly and assertively mobbed.

An organizational leadership that is prone to mobbing will not waste any time alerting the workforce that the worker they want out is a trouble maker, “with a long history of issues/problems/complaints/what-have-yous” who will be better off in another job. When this happens, even workers with stellar reputations and work records quickly find their identities and work histories revised as management discretely shares their concerns about the worker to the worker’s coworkers, suggesting that opportunities for advancement or improved working conditions may ensue once the “difficult employee” is gone. To limit this aggression, do not discuss managerial abuses with coworkers or others associated with the workplace, and keep any formal responses brief, factual, and non-threatening.

Another way that denial manifests itself is for the worker to become emotionally numb if not shocked. This response is particularly likely the more harsh and flagrant the managerial action. This response can be especially debilitating, preventing the worker from focusing, and often plunging the worker into a state of deep depression. Unfortunately, this response, while normal, can further erode the worker’s standing because they are not performing to their best ability, and their anguish and stress are often visible to coworkers, creating the appearance that the worker is not up to par, if not mentally ill. If you find yourself in a state of shock or numbness, get help from a mental health professional quickly so that you can withstand the intensifying aggression to come—because it will.

Anger  It’s completely natural to become angry when people treat us unfairly, and it’s understandable that humans become enraged when their survival is threatened—which is what happens when someone’s job and career are at stake. But this is precisely the stage that a mobbing manager most delights in, because this is the point where workers, who feel powerless in the face of managerial attacks, look crazy, if not dangerous. The angry worker is a scary worker, and coworkers will avoid them. Gossip will shift from what management has done to the worker, to what the worker might do to them. 

Any threats of revenge, retaliation, or even a threat to see a lawyer and seek justice, can quickly be viewed as threats of violence once gossiping tongues start wagging. There is also a legal reason an abusive organizational leadership might provoke a worker toward this stage.  If the worker has a potentially legitimate claim of retaliation for filing a grievance related to a protected status or action, such as discrimination, sexual harassment or whistle-blowing, it is illegal for management to retaliate. But it is legal for management to terminate the employee for any action that constitutes legitimate grounds for termination—such as making threats to the workplace. Even language as benign as saying you’ll get back at them for what they’ve done, that they’ll be sorry they messed with you, or you wish the sons-of-bitches dead, will be construed as threats. I have reviewed many cases where just the look on the worker’s face or their body posture was reported to management as “scary,” “intimidating,” or “threatening,” when they were going through the anger phase of mobbing.

Bargaining When it comes to death and dying, we often try to bargain with God, knowing the odds are usually stacked against us. But when it comes to mobbing, we are often confident that we can reason with our employers. This is a mistake, and one that often provides abusive employers with key information about a worker’s legal strategy, personal desires, and weaknesses that are then used against the worker. If bargaining follows the stage of anger, it is almost always futile, or provides the worker little compensation for the wrongs they’ve suffered, such as a paltry severance package and lukewarm references that make it clear to future employers the worker was unwanted. 

If management has made a public renunciation of a worker and done nothing to intervene to stop gossip and workplace abuse against a worker, they will be deaf to reason. Cognitive dissonance will have kicked in and no matter what evidence is presented to the employer to demonstrate how unjust, if not illegal, the employer’s actions or unfounded their perceptions, nothing will persuade them to negotiate fairly. The more evidence that is presented that they are in the wrong, the more they will be determined to prevail. The more desperate they see the worker is to end the aggression and move on, the more confident they will be that they are winning. And the more aggressively the mob is becoming in fueling a hostile work environment, the more certain management will be that the worker is deserving of the treatment. 

Bargain at an early stage, or don’t bargain at all, unless you are willing to take whatever crumbs are tossed your way (which may be the best option, as I will discuss in a future essay). If you aren’t willing to settle for crumbs, and didn’t bargain early enough, hold off on the bargaining until you are either out of the workplace (but have retained your legal rights), or have fallen quiet and played dead long enough for the tide of aggression to subside.

Depression The depression associated with mobbing can be debilitating, and it can hit while still on the job, and commonly, becomes profound after job loss. Severe depression is particularly likely if the shunning associated with mobbing has extended to one’s broader social or professional network. In addition to mental health treatment, there are a number of coping strategies that can help prevent the acute depression associated with mobbing from turning into chronic and serious depression. Exercise, comedy, community service, travel, and cognitive therapies are all excellent for alleviating acute depression, which in time can mitigate or prevent chronic depression. Broadening one’s support group outside the workplace is also invaluable in helping to overcome the depression mobbing targets inevitably suffer.

Acceptance The final stage of grief, acceptance, may be the most difficult to achieve for the mobbing target who has suffered profound injustice and/or professional, social and economic loss. Yet it is the first stage to true healing, and thus the most important. The earlier one reaches the stage of acceptance and removes themselves from proximity to the mob, the faster and greater the recovery both psychologically and professionally.

By reflecting on these stages of grief, both mobbing targets and their coworkers can gain insights into what is going on and respond accordingly. To coworkers, if a worker who is being targeted by management for elimination acts strangely or appears mentally unstable, consider these stages and how their behaviors might appear strange, but are actually normal responses to abnormal stressors, and they are temporary. 

To the mobbing target, first identify the stage you are in, and then know that this stage will pass. The external situation may remain adverse, and in most cases, will even worsen in many respects. But the emotional state you are in is temporary, and psychological recovery is possible regardless of the material losses.

For those who find themselves stuck in a stage, however, recovery may be distant. The most common stages where the mobbing target freezes are anger and depression. There is every reason to be furious if you have been mobbed, and every reason to be profoundly depressed if you have lost your job and not found a comparable new one, and especially if you have been shunned. But no matter how justified your emotional responses, always remember that you cannot heal until you address the stage that you are in, and reach the state of acceptance which allows you to transcend the painful past and restore your mental and emotional health.

It’s not easy, it’s not fair, and it’s not fast. But for all who say that bullying and mobbing destroy a person, I answer, only if you let it. Don’t let yourself be destroyed. Let yourself be healed so that you can give to the world your own unique gifts, skills, and personality. To give into the rage or the depression, is to join the mob against you. Don’t treat yourself in the same way the mob has treated you. Heal yourself. Only then will you begin to get your life back, and it may well be a far richer and more rewarding life than you ever knew before.

Janice Harper, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict and organizational cultures.

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