Workplace mobbing/bullying

Destructive conflicts, such as mobbing in the worplace, are everday life in organisations. Already Frederick W. Taylor reported of highly productive workers, who were were harassed by fellow-workers because of their willingness to perform.

In an survey by Christoph Seydl amgong Upper Austrian employees (n=248) in 2005, 5.3 % of the respondents reported that they are currently harassed/bullied. In the same year the percentage amounted to 2.9 % in Sweden (n=251).

According to a representative study carried out in Germany in 2002 (n=2.765), 2.7 % of the workforce were harassed at the relevant time. In a Swiss representative study (n=3.220), which was carried out at the end of 2001 and at the beginning of 2003 respectively, 4.4 % of the workforce labelled itsself as current mobbing victim.

Roles in a mobbing process

There are three basic roles in a mobbing process. Researchers and practitioners have used different labels for the people involved. Different concepts resulted in this variety of synonyms.

Table: Synonyms of mobbing and terms for action and involved parties
Term Action 1st party 2nd party 3rd party
bullying to bully s.o. the bully the bullied
harassment to harass s.o. the harasser the harassed, the harassee
mobbing to mob s.o. the mobber the mobbed,
the mobbee
victimisation to victimise s.o. the victim
the perpetrator the victim the witness
the offender the target the bystander, the observer

The range of synonyms can be seen in the table above. The verb to mob might sound unfamiliar, but it has been already used. The term to harass can be used as a proper alternative to to mob as a correspondent verb to mobbingHeinz Leymann suggests to use bullying for activities between children and teenagers at school, where physically aggressive acts are quite common, and to reserve the word mobbing for adult behaviour.

Mobbing defined

So far, there is no official – universally accepted – definition of mobbing. Seydl uses folllowing definition: Mobbing is an individually or informally deviant process where one or more single given individuals become victims of systematically illegitimate negative sanctioning within the sphere of their organisational membership; due to a power deficit, the victims have difficulties in controlling the situation and defending themselves.

It is called workplace mobbing if the victim acts as employed or self-employed in this organisational context. Intention and perception are not relevant to the definition above.

Mobbing acts

The scope of mobbing acts is virtually unlimited. In many cases, it depends on the context, whether an act supports mobbing or not: Commanding dangerous tasks might solely aim to harm somebody. In this case, it is a mobbing act. However, if an explosives expert must defuse a WWII bomb, it envolves risk, but it is part of the ordinary job requirements.

Martin Wolmerath und Axel Esser demonstrate how extensive the arsenal of mobbers is. They created a catalogue with more than 100 different mobbing acts. Nevertheless, the list is not complete. Possible mobbing acts include sabotage of work results, unfair criticism, suppression of exchanges of views, exaggerated appraisal, insults, attempts at intimidation, harassment by telephone, sexual harassment or refraining help.

Consequences of mobbing

Destructive workplace conflicts which persist over a longer period of time can trigger illnesses. According to conservative calculations by Seydl, more than 10% of the time off through illness is the result of mobbing. Targets of mobbing are on average twice as often ill. In this context, the Swedish Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) alludes to reduced efficiency and productivity, abusive power, the formation of cliques and large personnel turnover among others.

Also society has to bear the follow-up costs, such as treatment expenses or sick pay. At worst – for example in the event of severe post-traumatic stress disorder – mobbing results in final exits of the targets from the labour market.

Causes of mobbing

Mobbing in the workplace always has its origin in an unsolved conflict. Often, structural constraints and conflicting concerns make the direct settlement of the actual reasons for the conflict and the discontentment (e.g. fear of losing one's job) difficult or impossible with legitimate means.

If a company faces an economic crisis, reduction of staff sometimes becomes indispensable. Employees who deliver a performance above average have of course better chances to keep their job. A less performing employee can either try harder or impair the performance of the rival, e.g. by defamation or sabotage. If the individual cannot outmatch the rival through own performance, rather the latter strategy will be applied. One refers to this as detouring of conflicts or content displacement as the conflict conntent is no longer the threat to the own position but the supposedly weaker performance of the target.

Strains of the work environment (e.g. tight deadlines, unclear responsibilities, lack of recognition) take up the conflict resolution capabilities of the individual. Thus, the tendency towards conflict detouring – and in particular mobbing – grows with increasing strain.

Further know contributory factors to the mobbing risk are corporate culture, opportunities for change exchanges of views, the availability of functional alternatives, leadership style and expected sanctions against mobbing. Individual attitudes have a lower explanatory value for the organisational mobbing risk; i.e. they play a minor role.

Mobbing prevention

Organisational events are too intricate that mobbing can ever be totally eliminated. However, the mobbing risk can be minimised. As the results show, cosmetic individual measures make rather little sense in the prevention of mobbing. Conflict trainings are fairly pointless, if the employees are constantly at loggerheads with each other due to a laissez-faire leadership style and unclear responsibilities.

Mobbing prevention starts, for example, with the careful consideration of promotions. The situation that only those employees who assert themselves and not those who cooperate best are promoted, can be already an incentive for mobbing. Structural conflict hotspots must be identified and mitigated, opportunities for mobbing eliminated and risks for offenders created.

Mobbing intervention

In principle, it is better to attain a constructive conflict path, before the conflicts escalate or end up in mobbing. This will, however, not always be possible because one has underestimated the conflict potential, for instance. In that event, mediation is in principle an option. Yet, something should be noted:

  • Mobbing may continue in the mediation situation.
  • Mobbers do not necessarily have any interest in finding a constructive solution.

Sanctions against the mobber may complicate the soothing of the situation. On the other hand, mobbing would be relegated to the status of a minor offence, if there is a lack of penalties. Irrespective of the individual case, it is important to think about and communicate possible sanctions depending on the seriousness of attacks. The possible sanctions can range from a formal notice, a disciplinary record in the personnel file and lower career prospects in the least case to dismissal of the perpetrator in very serious cases.

If the mobber must fear penalties, an increased interest of the mobber in real conflict resolution can be assumed – similar to out-of-court settlement – as a rule. A result of mediation could be then, for example, that the mobber does something good for the victim instead of the penalty.



Statistical material