Beyond Bullying

Peace building at work, school, and home

Surviving Workplace Mobbing: Seeking Support

Knowing who to turn to and who to avoid when under fire may help you to survive.

By the time a person realizes they are being “mobbed,” which is to say, the target of collective aggression aimed at expelling them from the group, the abuse is usually well under way. And once under way, the most aggressive people are often the very people the mobbing target was most close to—in other words, people they would otherwise turn to for support when it’s needed the most. In that case, who is the target to turn to? Whether at an early stage when someone in management takes aim, or later when the workforce has joined in the aggression and taken collective aim, there are certain sources of support the target can and should seek out, and others that they absolutely should not ask for help.

Avoid seeking support from anyone at work   The first thing most people do when the boss goes after them is gripe to their coworkers. They don’t usually complain to too many people, but their two or three close allies will certainly understand, they figure. Besides, at the early stage, it’s just an example of what a jerk the boss is, of how unfair the place can be, or just a little snickering gossip. But these are the people who, should mobbing ensue, will be the most aggressive and damaging to the worker (for reasons I’ll detail and explain in a future post). The same goes for members of any similarly situated cohort—turning to other women if you’re a woman, other men if you’re a man, other members of the same religious or racial group or nationality, can and will backfire in most cases. So when that adverse review comes through or the boss scolds behind closed doors, avoid telling any coworkers—even if everyone you work with claims to be behind you. Avoid sharing your concerns with this group, and you may well avoid triggering a mob.

Avoid HR and other internal investigative offices if at all possible   As most anyone who has read anything on workplace mobbing or bullying knows, HR is not your friend. They represent the interests of management and no matter how abusive if not illegal managerial practices, the Human Resources employees will be responsible to their employer, not the employees. Moreover, diversity and affirmative action offices that ostensibly investigate claims of discrimination and harassment are not much better (and sometimes even worse). If your conflict involves discrimination or harassment, you may have to file an internal report or cooperate in an investigation. But be cautious before you do so because it may be the act that turns a resolvable conflict into a full-scale mobbing. Objectivity is rare if not impossible in any internal department because those who are in charge report to your employer. Avoid these offices at all costs, and do not expect a fair and honest investigation should you not be able to avoid them. The most powerless players are the ones most likely to be found culpable, and that may well be you.

Do not share your story on blogs or appeal for help in an online forum   It may seem counterintuitive to avoid the very sources of support and information that enable people to anonymously seek advice and support from others going through much the same. But it’s better to just read these online discussions than join in them, at least until the issue is resolved and you’re far removed from the workplace. Here’s why. First, it’s not as anonymous as you might think. A google of your email address or a quick google of your name prefaced by “in blog:” can bring up a cascade of comments you’ve posted, and when management goes after you, they google. Second, anything done on a computer owned or under the control of your employer, can and will be secretly monitored by most employers once mobbing is underway. Never underestimate an aggressive employer’s determination to destroy you.

Third, most people who end up suing an employer never in a million years thought it would ever get that far, but just in case it does, beware. If your conflict turns into litigation, under the laws of discovery you will be asked to reveal the names of anyone you have discussed your complaints with, anything you have written or posted about your case and its claims, and anyone you’ve emailed. Your work computers will be searched by forensic specialists who will pull off anything you’ve ever written or deleted, any site you’ve ever visited and email you’ve ever sent. And if you’ve used your personal computers for any work activities or communications about your case, you may even have to turn over the hard drives to your own computers, along with information about where these online postings have been made (and which may in turn lead to claims of libel against you).

Finally, many, but not all, of these online resources encourage venting, anger and revenge. They will do more to exacerbate your emotional flooding than diminish it. It is not in your best interests to remain in a state of anger when you are being mobbed. You need to remain calm and in control and rational, no matter how unjust the aggression against you may be, and how justified your anger.

Similarly, do not turn to the media for support   Many people think if they get the media’s attention, their employer will be shamed into compliance with the law or otherwise treating workers fairly. But as every whistleblower knows, the one who is shamed is usually the one making a stink. Once the media turn their attention to a workplace conflict, no matter how blatant any moral or legal violations, the employer will go on the attack and portray the worker as emotionally and mentally unstable, as having a history of making complaints, of bullying coworkers, and of having a history of poor performance (even if the record states otherwise; the employer will insist that the trail of glowing reviews shows how it bent over backwards to be encouraging and supportive of the difficult employee). Worse, because the worker will be emotionally overwhelmed, they very likely might appear crazy to anyone listening to them, including to reporters. The media rarely help a worker being mobbed, but very often the media attention they might cast on a worker—even if favorable to the worker—serves to anger and alienate coworkers and professional colleagues. Beware.

So where does the worker who is under attack find support?

Turning to friends and family is essential   But it is equally essential not to exhaust them with the never-ending details of the conflict and the incomprehensible babble that emotional flooding provokes. Take deep breaths, focus on their needs, listen to their stories, and learn to stop yourself when your talk becomes repetitious and trivial. (And for those friends who also work with you or in your profession, remember they are coworkers first, friends second, in matters pertaining to mobbing. No matter how loyal they are to you, your loyalty to them is best expressed by not putting them in the uncomfortable position of having to side against an employer. Ultimately, they will not, so if you want to keep them as friends, don’t turn to them for support in this matter.)

Join or engage in groups based on shared faith or interests   Become active in your church, mosque or synagogue, join a hobby-based or interest group, or start volunteering for a cause you care about. The important thing is not to find people who will listen to your problems, but to find people who will care about you and enjoy your company—as well as to get out of your own world of internalized pain. It’s very difficult not to vent about what is happening to you when you are under the collective attack of a workplace mob. But doing so will undermine the very thing you need most—people to like and respect you. Mobbing entails collective shunning by people you once cared about and worked among. Having them turn on you is extremely painful, and to counter that pain and its consequences, finding support not for your cause, but for your very being, is critical. So seek out friendship, camaraderie and caring from others who will help you to feel valued during a time when others will cruelly insist that you are not. And to the extent you can confide in people confidentially, such as clergy, by all means do so.

Lawyers, Therapists and Relevant Agencies or Unions   These are the professionals whose job it is to help you. Do not hesitate to seek them out should you feel you need them. But some cautionary advice before you do. Once a lawyer appears publicly, which is to say, writes to your employer that he or she is representing you, your employer will do two things. First, they will become all the more determined to defeat you. Second, they will notify all your coworkers and supervisors to retain any and all emails and other communications to, from or about you and forward them to management. And when they receive that notice, your coworkers are going to resent you for pulling them into “your” mess, causing them extra work, and especially, invading their privacy. Anything else contained in such communications, such as their own complaints about the boss or others will have to be submitted to management, thereby putting them at risk. So if you hire an attorney, have them counsel you privately without making an appearance until when and if it becomes absolutely necessary.

As for therapists, keep in mind that their notes and testimony will likely be subpoenaed if you file litigation against your employer, so remember that confidentiality has its limits. Be sure, as well, that your therapist is knowledgeable about group aggression and group psychology and its impacts. As for relevant agencies, such as the EEOC, or your union, you may have to file reports with them to protect your legal interests, but know that when you do, your employer will become more aggressive and accusatory.

Mobbing is an extreme form of collective bullying that not only damages people psychologically, socially and emotionally, but it can have devastating economic impacts as the target fights for their job and career, and often loses both. In order to minimize the chances of a conflict turning to mobbing, it is imperative you not turn to your coworkers for support. But in order to minimize the impact of mobbing once it ensues, it is imperative you do find support elsewhere. But as you do so, always remember that far more important to proving your case against your employer, is never losing sight of your intrinsic value. Mobbing entails denying the target has any value. No matter what is happening at work, you do have value. Seek out those who will treasure your humanity, not those who will deny it.

 

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

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