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Are You Being Mobbed at Work?

What is mobbing, and what tactics are used to push victims out of their jobs?

Markus Spiske/Pexels
Source: Markus Spiske/Pexels

“Mobbing is a much more sophisticated way of doing someone in than murder, and in most countries, it has the advantage of being entirely legal” (Duffy and Sperry, 2012, p. 3).

What is workplace mobbing?

Workplace mobbing is the purposeful humiliation, degradation, and terrorization of an individual by a group of people in an effort to remove her from the organization, often resulting in reputational damage, traumatization, health consequences, financial hardship, and job loss for the victim (Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliot, 1999; Sperry and Duffy, 2014).

What is the difference between mobbing and workplace bullying?

Bullying is often, but not always, hierarchical in which a person with more power, per designated position or social influence, targets a single individual with less power for abuse. In contrast, mobbing is non-hierarchical and involves a group of perpetrators who collectively gang up on the victim for the sole purpose of pushing her out. Mobbing is a product of organizational dynamics that establish “in-groups” and “out-groups,” operate under a veil of secrecy, discourage questioning, lack due process, and are more interested in preserving outward appearances than getting curious about entrenched problems (Duffy and Sperry, 2014).

The phenomenon of mobbing can be partially attributed to what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error” in which successes and failures are ascribed to a single employee instead of the culture and structure of the organization that birthed the circumstance (Jones, 1999). When the target of workplace mobbing is fired, constructively discharged, or quits—onlookers blame the victim instead of examining the company, nonprofit, hospital, or school that scapegoated her in order to cover up large-scale problems that management failed to address (Duffy and Sperry, 2012). The group nature of mobbing provides perpetrators with “plausible deniability,” making it difficult to pinpoint blame or identify the nucleus of the attack.

In short, bullying is more of an individual act, whereas mobbing is an outgrowth of an organizational culture, where a group of individuals gangs up on a victim, and management sanctions or joins in on the attack with the ultimate goal of terminating the victim’s employment.

What does mobbing look like, and who gets targeted?

Heinz Leymann (1990), a Swedish psychiatrist and organizational psychologist whose seminal work on bullying and mobbing revolutionized the field, often cautioned his readers not to assume their storyline was being shared, for since there are only so many ways to psychologically terrorize an individual at work, the case studies on mobbing are hauntingly similar, most sharing themes of shadow files, character assassinations, peer interviews, secret meetings, and the failure of Human Resources and upper management to offer victims protection and support.

The mobbing process begins when the “in-group” targets an individual they perceive to violate the organization’s cultural norms. Most often, the target is someone whose creativity and work ethic surpasses expectations, recalibrating the status quo and setting a new bar for innovation and production (Bultena and Whatcott, 2008; Gates, 2004; Hillard, 2009). Her independent thinking and problem-solving skills often uncover entrenched problems the “in-group” and organizational leaders prefer to keep hidden or ignore.

Victims of mobbing often share the following characteristics or circumstances: They speak out against harmful organizational policies; expose corruption or wrongdoing; and prioritize protecting the clients, patients, or students they are called to serve over maintaining appearances (Duffy and Sperry, 2013; Kenny, 2019; Martin and Saint Martin, 2012).

What are “shadow files,” and how are they used?

Because the target has not engaged in wrongdoing, an authorized and formal investigation cannot be launched, so the mob instigators rely on informal channels, leaving the victim unaware she is under scrutiny and attack. Since targets of mobbing tend to have exemplary work records with pristine personnel files, the leaders of the mob will often begin by creating what Duffy and Sperry (2014) refer to as “shadow files.” These secret documents include gossip, innuendos, and peer interview notes that are neither appropriate nor ethical to place in personnel files and could open the organization up to liability for defamation if found in a formal investigation. “Shadow files” often serve as the building blocks for constructing the false narrative required to ensure the victim’s employment termination.

Why is character assassination the mob’s primary weapon?

Since the victim tends to be a top performer in her field, the mob is unable to attack her job performance or work ethic, so instead, they dismantle her character. In an effort to avert sympathizers, they perform what Harold Garfinkel (1956) calls a “degradation ceremony” in which the mob leaders proclaim that the victim’s stellar performance is a lie, her accomplishments a farce, and say that her despicable character leaves the community with no other option but to extract her from the organization (Duffy and Sperry, 2012).

Since the target is a highly ethical, hard-working, and service-oriented individual with a benevolent worldview, she believes her friends, upper management, the board, or Human Resources will come to her defense, set the record straight, and hold the perpetrators accountable for the defamation. However, in the cruelest of twists, research shows she will likely be ostracized and attacked by the very people she counted on to help (Namie and Namie, 2013).

How are informal interviews used to gather dirt and recruit mob members?

Once the mob reaches a critical mass, the mob leaders typically conduct informal interviews with the victim’s colleagues, using leading questions and innuendoes to gather dirt. Within those meetings, it is made clear that if the interviewee wants to avoid becoming “part of the problem,” it is essential that he isolate and exclude the victim from projects, meetings, and social gatherings. As this is not a sanctioned investigation with approved protocols, the victim is not alerted to the interviews nor asked to share her side of the story. In fact, the victim is usually charged, tried, and sentenced, having never been asked to serve as a witness to her own demise (Duffy and Sperry, 2012).

How do secret meetings secure the victim’s fate, and why is she not allowed to tell her story?

Following the informal interviews, it is not unusual for secret meetings to be held to determine the victim’s fate. In these meetings, the focus is on the victim’s personality and character, not her work, and only the mob’s perspective is shared. Since mobbing typically happens in fear-based and blame-prone organizations, employees understand that if they challenge the mob’s narrative, they will be targeted next (Duffy and Sperry, 2014).

At this stage, the victim may get wind of the secret meetings and ask to share her notes, emails, and sometimes audiotapes to refute the lies and document the abuse she has suffered. Yet despite her pleas to present evidence of the attacks, she will not be allowed to speak, for the mob knows the victim’s silence is essential to protecting the perpetrators from liability and ensuring the original goal of termination is carried out (Duffy and Sperry, 2014; Namie and Namie, 2009).

What role does Human Resources play in mobbing?

As the abuse intensifies, many victims will reach out to Human Resources for support yet are met with disheartening results. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 Zogby survey reported that “71 percent of U.S. employers react to reports of abusive conduct in ways that harm targets” (p. 14). Moreover, when an investigation is launched, there is a distinct bias given to the perpetrators' storyline, co-workers fail to speak out, key individuals who can corroborate the victim’s experience are silenced, and evidence to document the abuse is not reviewed, leading many victims to label the investigative process a “sham.” Worsening the blow, a 2008 survey found that victims who reported the abuse were retaliated against by upper management 71 percent of the time (Namie and Namie, 2009).

How do mob victims find hope and healing?

Mob victims suffer deep levels of traumatization due to the large-scale ostracization, character assassination, abandonment by colleagues, and upper management’s involvement in the attacks. Duffy and Sperry (2014) discuss a variety of approaches for beginning the healing process, including taking a prolonged time to grieve, addressing the pain of ostracization by creating new communities, and seeking out medical care to support the journey. Lastly, they encouraged the victim to regain her personal agency by remembering that targets are most often top performers who become “scapegoats for larger organizational problems and conflict, the consequences of which are then blamed on the mobbing victim” (p.12).


Bultena, C. D., & Whatcott, R. B. ( 2008 ). Bushwhacked at work: A comparative analysis of mobbing and bullying at work. Proceedings of the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences, 15(1), 652 – 666.

Davenport, N. Z., Schwartz, R. D., & Elliott, G. P. (1999 ). Mobbing: Emotional abuse in the American workplace. Collins, IA: Civil Society Publishing.

Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2012). Mobbing: Causes, consequences, and solutions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Duffy, M., & Sperry, L. (2014). Overcoming mobbing: A recovery guide for workplace aggression and bullying. New York: Oxford University Press.

Garfinkel, H.( 1956 ). Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology, 61, 420-424.

Gates, G. (2004, October). Bullying and mobbing (Part 2). Labor Management, p. 31.

Hillard, J. R. (2009 ). Workplace mobbing: Are they really out to get your patient? Current Psychiatry, 8(4), 45-51.

Jones, E. E. (1990). Interpersonal perceptions. New York: Macmillan.

Kenny, K. (2019). Whistleblowing: Toward a new theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leymann, H. (1990). Mobbing and psychological terror at workplaces. Violence and Victims, 5(2), 119-126.

Martin, B., & Saint Martin, F. P. (2012). Mobbing and suppression: Footprints of their relationships. Social Medicine, 6(4), 218–226.

Namie, G., and Namie, R. (2009). The bully at work: What you can do to stop the hurt and reclaim your dignity on the job. Chicago: Sourcebooks.

The Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby International. (2017). U.S. workplace bullying survey. Retrieved from the Workplace Bullying Institute’s website.

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