What to Do When a Coworker is Mobbed, Part 1

The Bystander's Dilemma

Posted Apr 18, 2013

When I first began writing about mobbing, I was struck by the anger that was generated by the idea that good people can engage in bullying when acting in groups. While few challenged the idea that bullying can and does expand to include many participants, many people have resisted the idea that a person who bullies can be considered “good.”

But mobbing is contagious—once it is ignited in the workplace, it takes little time for good people to become swept up in the maelstrom of aggression. And once they are, they do not view their own actions as bad, but instead, view the actions of the target as bad—and hence deserving of the aggressive treatment. Who are these people who are the latecomers to mobbing, the ones who were initially hesitant but eventually joined in the gossip, the shunning and reporting of the target? They are the witnesses to aggression, the bystanders turned aggressors. By focusing on their perceptions and actions, and minimizing the likelihood of their becoming aggressive, we might do more to keep mobbing in check than by focusing on “the bully” once collective aggression is underway.

Most bystanders do not start out with animosity toward the target, and often begin as sympathetic supporters. Frightened of finding themselves targeted if they openly support their coworker, confused about what is going on, and most of all, weary of the target’s emotional flooding, bystanders either retreat from the conflict altogether—neither supporting the target nor the mob but concerned about keeping their job—or they turn against the target and almost always with a vengeance. What is rare in a mobbing is for a bystander to remain or become a supporter once mobbing has progressed. One reason is because few people understand not only what mobbing is and how it progresses, but they also do not understand what it does to the mobbing target—it drives them mad—in both senses of the word. So what does a bystander need to know to both protect themselves from aggression, and to avoid engaging in it?

First, understand that there is little the worker can do to stop the mobbing, once it ensues. There are some steps a target can take to protect him or herself from escalating mobbing, but there is a good chance the worker does not clearly understand what is happening. It is also likely that the worker is unaware of a lot of what is happening to defeat them. The longer the aggression commences, the less likely there is anything the worker can do to stop it except by leaving—which can often mean being out of work in mid to late-life, losing seniority/longevity/tenure, even pension, and important benefits. What this looks like to the bystander is the worker is doing something to aggravate the situation, the worker is refusing to “see the writing on the wall” and move on, the worker is bringing it on themself and escalating the situation. But understand that the worker is probably just trying to stop the aggression, respond to negative evaluations and actions, and cooperate with humiliating and specious investigations while still trying to get their work done.

Second, understand that if a person in a position of leadership in an organization takes aim against a worker, coworkers will one by one unite with management, but most will initially do so in secret. They will meet with managers behind closed doors, agree with management that the target must go and will be happier once they do, and will agree to share information that may help management get rid of the worker. Consequently, the targeted worker will sense that these coworkers are pulling away, but at the same time, will want to hold onto their support—very often by sharing personal information about what management is doing to them and what they are doing to fight back. The result will inevitably be that the mobbing target will at some point realize they’ve been betrayed, and when that happens, become even more angry, suspicious and confused.

What this looks like to the bystander is an overly emotional, angry and paranoid worker, and increasingly large numbers of people who share the view of management. Hence, it will look like there must be something to management’s desire to “do something about” the worker. It will also look like the aggression is coming from the angry and emotional worker, not the cool and distant workforce whose aggression is masked in secret reports and emails, closed door investigations, gossip and shunning—an act of non-action.

Yet the worker’s emotional response is a perfectly normal response to an abnormal act of collective aggression. While the collective aggression itself is almost never rational nor justified; it is predictable. It will become more and more aggressive until the worker is gone, and the more the worker resists, the more vicious the mobbing will become.

Third, understand that the attacks probably have no merit. Management is engaged in a series of actions that are designed to justify the employee’s dismissal. If management really had cause to terminate the worker, they would do so. Mobbing happens when there is no legitimate reason to terminate a worker. So when mobbing begins, the targeted worker will endure unexpected adverse evaluations, removal from committees or positions, false accusations of wrongdoing, investigations, scrutiny of emails, computers and work products, and other punitive and humiliating acts aimed at getting the worker to just leave or to justify their dismissal.

It will become nearly impossible for the worker to anticipate and respond to these unrelenting acts of aggression, to get their work done, to find a new job, and to appear normal and friendly. The stress will be unbearable, and that is the intent of a management which encourages mobbing. It won’t be called mobbing; it will be called dealing with a “difficult employee’s issues,” but mobbing it is. A worker so targeted will in most cases not have the capacity to perform their job at the same level they have in the past, while those who participate in the mobbing may very well be receiving unprecedented praise from management, promotions and raises, new opportunities within the workplace, and even the targeted worker’s former responsibilities and perks.

What this looks like to the bystander is twofold: the escalating accusations, investigations and rumors will make it look like there really is something wrong with the worker, and that the worker isn’t doing their job and can’t handle stress, while his or her coworkers have never done better. Those coworkers who are doing so well are very likely to be the coworkers who are doing the most to damage the targeted worker—even if they appear to be the worker’s allies. What is going on behind closed doors may well tell a different story. Beware the workers who receive promotions and raises during a mobbing of their coworker; chances are they sold out a coworker who trusted them.

Fourth, the people closest to the worker in terms of friendship, work responsibilities, or gender, age or race if an issue of discrimination is at hand, will inevitably turn against them. There are several reasons this happens. First, the ones closest to the target are the ones most in fear of becoming targets themselves. Second, if they are friends or close coworkers, management knows that they have valuable information to disclose and will be slowly but steadily courting them covertly. Third, they are the most likely to be exhausted from the worker’s emotional flooding, constant complaining about their situation, and inability to focus on other people’s needs. They will be understandably sick and tired of it and ready to move on. Fourth, if the worker has a potential lawsuit, getting “similarly situated employees,” such as members of the same gender, race, sexuality or age group, to disassociate from the worker’s claims will benefit management’s legal defense. And fifth, if the worker loses the support of those closest to him or her, the worker will soon be gone.

What this looks like to the bystander is that there really must be something to management’s position if even the worker’s own friends or cohort want nothing to do with them, a key objective of management’s strategy. Nothing helps them more than the friends and cohorts turning away. So when mobbing is underway, take note. If the mobbing is related to discrimination, patterns of past discrimination will suddenly disappear, and raises and promotions will go to those formerly bypassed. If the mobbing is associated with a report of sexual harassment, women will likely receive unexpected benefits and protections from management.

Fifth, gossip will rapidly shift from what management is doing to the worker, to what the worker is doing to management. The gossip will be initiated and spread most aggressively by those who once supported the worker who, now benefiting from management’s attentions, will assuage their conscience by convincing themselves they did the only right and necessary thing when they turned against their friend or coworker. One of the most effective ways to do that is through gossip—because it is self-reproducing and reinforcing as it is repeated by many people until “everybody” has something to say about the worker.

Be especially wary of anyone beginning a conversation about the worker with language to the effect of “I’m concerned about” him or her. If they really were concerned, they wouldn’t be talking about the worker at all, especially when management is really out to get them. As the gossip spreads, new details will be added by each speaker and over time in order to keep the topic entertaining, the gossip will become more and more salacious and unbelievable until eventually, the worker will be accused of being mentally ill, making a threat to self or others, and/or committing a serious ethical or criminal transgression. Of the dozens of mobbing targets I have spoken with, I have not spoken to any who have not been accused of one or more of these three things—unless they got out early.

What this looks like to the bystander is the worker is widely disliked and the topic of legitimate and serious concern. No matter how unbelievable the gossip, it will be believed because the talk will have been getting increasingly more bizarre for some time, the worker will have been acting abnormally, and if it is a particularly unbelievable rumor, it will appear that there has to be some truth to it or it never would have been said. As Adolph Hitler's right hand man Joseph Goebbels once said, tell a big enough lie, often enough and people will believe it.  If a mobbing is going down, expect the big lie to be told, and expect people to believe it.

So what can a bystander do to not contribute to this cycle of aggression? Stay tuned for Part II, for specific steps a bystander can take to avoid joining the mob, but still protect themselves.