Beware the Angry Office Mob

Everyone Agrees With Me

Recently a woman, I’ll call her Sue, contacted me to share her  story of being physically harassed by an office thug.  The public humiliation included a stinging verbal assault of lies that culminated in: “…and it’s not just me.  I emailed everyone in the office and they all agree with me!”  The power of that sentence was not lost on Sue.  She knew that anything she now said about the incident to any of her co-workers would be perceived as coming from that far from equal framing: “defensive.” 

Sure enough, the next day Sue began a quick descent into the land of mobbing.  She is excluded from meetings, lunches, and any other office event.  Co-workers suddenly become quiet when she walks into a room.  Her normal work duties were given to someone else.  The list goes on and on.  The meetings she is included in are round robins of humiliation as everyone feels emboldened to dump blame on her for any problems in the office whether she is involved or not – and clearly she’s not involved with much of late.  Sue worries that if she goes to HR for help it will be her word against — well, it will be her word against not just her bully but everybody else as well.  Those inexperienced in the world of mobbing often get lost in the old adage: where there’s this much smoke there must be fire.  Her story reminded me of the work by the leading expert on mobbing in academe, Kenneth Westhues:

Workplace mobbing is like bullying, in that the object is to rob the target of dignity and self-respect. Here, however, it is not a single swaggering bully that the target is up against, but the juggernaut of collective will. The message to the target is that everybody wants you out of here. Bullies often play leading roles in mobbing cases, whether as targets or perpetrators.

Today’s economic pressures on our workplaces leave far too many employees struggling with each other over resources.   Westhues suggests this practical advice from researchers:

• Keep your mind on the job. Mobs form when people lose sight of the organization’s purposes, turn their attention inward, get caught up in power struggles and one-upmanship.

• Plan carefully before blowing the whistle on managerial misconduct. Managers tend to go after whistleblowers, and elites close ranks. See Brian Martin, The Whistleblower’s Handbook (Annandale, NSW: Envirobook, 1999).

• Get a life away from work. Cultivate social relations in many different groups – family, school, church, community. If managers and workmates turn on a person who lacks alternative sources of social support, the target is easily destroyed.

• Show kindness to the target. Instead of joining mobbers or bystanders, find ways to affirm the target’s humanity. The mob may then turn on you, but you may possibly save another’s life.

• Nietzsche said it best: “Distrust all those in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.”

How Do You Know If You Are Being Mobbed?

Westhues offers up the WAMI indicators  and says “Perhaps the most important indicator is shown here as No. 12, the enlargement of some real or imagined misdeed or fault in order to smear the target’s whole identity, so that he or she is seen as personally abhorrent — a totally alien other, a dangerous, repugnant entity that turns the stomachs of good and decent people.”:

1. By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average

2. Rumours and gossip circulate about the target’s misdeeds: “Did you hear what she did last week?”

3. The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self.

4. Collective focus on a critical incident that “shows what kind of man he really is.”

5. Shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment, “to be taught a lesson.”

6. Unusual timing of the decision to punish, e. g., apart from the annual performance review.

7. Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications.

8. Formal expressions of collective negative sentiment toward the target, e. g. a vote of censure, signatures on a petition, meeting to discuss what to do about the target.

9. High value on secrecy, confidentiality, and collegial solidarity among the mobbers.

10. Loss of diversity of argument, so that it becomes dangerous to “speak up for”or defend the target.

11. The adding up of the target’s real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.

12. The target is seen as personally abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.

13. Disregard of established procedures, as mobbers take matters into their own hands.

14. Resistance to independent, outside review of sanctions imposed on the target.

15. Outraged response to any appeals for outside help the target may make.

16. Mobbers’ fear of violence from target, target’s fear of violence from mobbers, or both.

4 thoughts on “Beware the Angry Office Mob

  1. Thank you for writing on this topic. I can attest that even though I knew about mobbing, I failed to recognize the signals myself because I was so caught up in my battle with “the bully” that I foolishly assumed others would intervene to stop him — or at the very least, support me as his aggression became more blatent, illegal and bold. But the joke was on me, because he was management, and I was not. In the end, despite an excellent record with no past problems, I was villified. Fighting back only caused them to fight harder, and broader, destroying my career with gossip, lies and false accusations throughout my professional circles. In the end, I sued, and they settled for several years of my salary. Was it worth it? The lawyers and the IRS made out, and I was left with a fistful of dollars and no career. Anyone considering battling “the bully” or relying on legal protections to help them is wise to read up on mobbing, recognize the indicators, and be especially on guard against those closest to the target — for they are the ones an aggressive manager will court — behind the scenes. Lay low, laugh hard, and run like hell to the nearest new job. (And download some email tracking software so you know who is forwarding your emails to whom; don’t use the office email or computers for anything but work; and assume your computers and possibly your work space are being watched. Statistically, chances are they are.)


    • Bullying allows you to build alliances and form a protective net of aware individuals who can help you – I became a master at that. Mobbing is like walking a tightrope without a net. You also raise an important point about legislation. I started to address that in this article and realized it is much too complex to include in a single post and I’m planning to address it in a separate article.


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