What Can We Learn From Christopher Dorner?

Mobbing is a form of workplace aggression that can sometimes lead to violence.

Posted Mar 12, 2013

When former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner went on a deadly rampage earlier this year, the only thing that came of it was tragedy and bloodshed; there was nothing noble about his acts.  Yet Dorner’s story was a tragic outcome of a common conflict: workplace mobbing.  Dorner killed several people and in a rambling manifesto justifying his actions, he declared war on the Los Angeles Police Department before being killed in a standoff with police on Feburary 12th.  Nothing that was done to him justified the homicidal spree he embarked on, but there are valuable lessons to be learned in his story about how workplace mobbing can push otherwise peaceful workers to extremes.

Workplace mobbing is the collective determination to humiliate, shun, sabotage and torment a worker until he or she leaves or is otherwise defeated.  It almost always involves someone who differs in some identifiable manner, whether by race, gender, age, political or religious persuasion or whatever it is that sets them apart from the majority.  And when that person makes a complaint or opposes a managerial agenda, if someone in a position of leadership determines that the troublemaker must go—regardless of the intent of the one making it—management closes rank.  When that happens, the worker is marginalized, if not demoted (and eventually dismissed), and then subjected to a series of what are all too often specious and humiliating investigations associated with one trumped up accusation after another.

In Dorner’s rambling and maniacal manifesto, he did indeed enumerate the many ways in which he had been subjected to such investigations after making a complaint of a colleague’s alleged brutality.  He outlined racist epithets he said he’d heard colleagues use routinely.  He described investigations and hearings overseen by people he alleged were close to the officer he initially reported.  And he described having been a completely different, and respected, man before the decision was made to terminate him. 

Most workers subjected to workplace mobbing do not become violent, and when they do, they almost always turn that violence on themselves through suicide.  Those who do become violent, virtually always male gun owners, rarely have a history of violence (Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama faculty member who killed colleagues after being denied tenure, was an exception in this regard—not only was she one of the only women to ever “go postal,” but she had murdered her own brother years before). 

In the documentary, Murder by Proxy, filmmaker Emil Chiaberi asks why most workplace spree killings are committed by people with no history of violence or mental illness.  Chiaberi shows how workers “going postal” at the U.S. Postal Service have been in many cases subjected to longer hours, greater demands, and increasingly arbitrary and cruel disciplinary procedures that continued for so long that the worker finally snapped.  “It’s crazy making,” one woman who had been mobbed once told me, “It’s like they picked up my whole personality and smashed it on the ground and it shattered in a million broken pieces.”

Because I have been writing on the topic, I hear from mobbed workers every week and from nearly every continent on the planet.  The details differ but the process is always the same.  Someone in a position of leadership has sounded the alarm to destroy the worker, the accusations and investigations begin, the person’s entire work history and identity are revised until they are made out to be delusional and a danger, and one by one the workforce joins in until the worker is so enraged and traumatized that some do, as Christopher Dorner has done, eventually become the delusional and dangerous person they’ve been made out to be.

Yet almost all focus on workplace aggression has lately focused on workplace “bullies,” depicting them as “psychopaths” and “tyrants” who must be eliminated at all costs.  It is no surprise at all, given the current demonization of “bullies,” that Dorner alleged he was called a bully after making his report.  I have long cautioned that by creating a category of people who are considered deserving of shunning and expulsion, employers need only label a whistleblower a bully to be rid of him or her. 

How can a non-aggressive worker be painted as a bully?  It’s surprisingly easy.  Making complaints becomes “negativity,” becoming angry at mistreatment is “hostility,” and being shunned by workers is viewed as evidence of being disliked and avoided by one’s colleagues.  Aggressive behavior is indeed unacceptable, but the current mainstream bully paradigm of pointing the finger at the bad apple bully is ripe for abuse because the label will never stick to the most aggressive worker.  It will only, and always, stick to the least powerful one.

It is imperative that workers be treated more humanely by management and by the workforce.  To do so responsibility must be placed on management to objectively and compassionately address worker conflicts.  Whenever management conspires to do a worker in, they risk creating future Dorners who one day just might snap.  And whenever workers gossip about a coworker, send disparaging emails about them to management or other workers, use dehumanizing labels to describe them, join others in making accusations, and shun and sabotage them, the workforce is complicit in the mobbing, and risks creating future Dorners.  The only path toward healthier and safer workplaces begins with compassion, not with character assassination and dismissal in the name of office politics.

Make no mistake.  Christopher Dorner was no hero, and those who have elevated him to hero status, are celebrating the horrific violence he committed.  He became the anti-hero, someone who chose the very antithesis of the heroic pathway, someone who did not become strengthened by his experiences, but instead became emotionally and psychologically destroyed by them. 

Although Dorner said he had no choice, the truth is, he had a choice and he made the worse possible one.  But his mind and reason were clearly gone; even he suggested in his manifesto that his workplace treatment had probably changed his brain.

I cannot speak for Dorner’s history, for I do not know it.  But what I do know is that whenever a person’s identity is destroyed through gossip and accusation, they are severely damaged.  Whenever a person’s livelihood and ability to support themselves and their families are taken away, their survival has been threatened.  And whenever a person’s privacy and honor are stripped of them through specious investigations whose outcome has been predetermined from above, they will become as enraged as any rape victim. 

Mobbing kills.  It almost always kills the target, if not literally (through suicide, heart disease, or addiction), then figuratively (through a rapid psychological, social and economic descent).  But sometimes it kills others.  Sometimes the target feels so powerless and ravaged by workplace mobbing that like a cornered animal, he’ll employ the only power he has left—he’ll load his gun and kill.

We will never stop workplace killings.  But we can stop many of them, not by eliminating the mobbing target through whatever means possible (if anything, doing so increases the risk of their reactionary violence), but by not participating in workplace mobbing.  It’s too late for Christopher Dorner and his undeserving victims, but it might not be too late for the next worker whose name and reputation have been put on the workplace chopping block.  By treating our colleagues with compassion and humanity, instead of cruelty and hostility, we just might save some lives.