Can You Survive The Office Witch Hunt?

I was fascinated by a recent series of articles in the Huffington Post written by Dr. Janice Harper and decided to learn more about her work.  [Harper is the author of MOBBED! A SURVIVAL GUIDE TO ADULT BULLYING AND MOBBING ] Her 2010 paper, Just Us Justice, is the culmination of lessons learned from a chilling personal experience with mobbing in the workplace.   Anyone uncomfortable that she links this phenomena to lessons learned from the Holocaust should read the in-depth article, Trial by FBI Investigation.  The author details Harper’s horrific descent into what has been called an academic witch hunt.

I decided to give her a call and quickly found myself deep in conversation with a fascinating woman.  She gave me permission to re-print excerpts of Just Us Justice which include Harper’s own perspective on how to survive mobbing.  As important, she raises questions about the efficacy of laws, “zero tolerance,” and the “bully label.”

Just Us Justice

…If you are being mobbed, take an honest look at yourself and your own behaviors in fueling the aggression. Doing so does not in any way justify the violence that is being directed toward you, but just as you learn not to look a grizzly bear in the eyes if you should come across one, figure out what you are doing that is provoking your attackers. Don’t confront your attackers. Retreat, quietly document everything, but get your resume together and start applying for jobs – even if you don’t want to leave. Protect your reputation, safeguard your security and increase your options for escape. Do not accept any claims that you deserve this treatment, but do not accept the victim label, either. You have been mobbed because you have done something – however well meaning, however benign, however unintended to hurt anyone, however legal – but you have done something to trigger a violent reaction in others. The sooner you are able to identify what you have done to trigger these emotions, the sooner you can change your own behaviors and more favorably influence perceptions of you until the mob either diffuses, or you get out of their reach and into a new future…

How Survival Operates

Fighting the mob is like fighting a grizzly bear. When the bear goes after you, friends are going to run as fast as they can – away from the bear. And if you run in their direction with a grizzly hot on your trail, they will be outraged – not at the bear, but at you for putting them at risk. So what do you do once the bear gets a hold of you? Have a fair fight? Give that bear everything you’ve got? Good luck.

The more you fight a grizzly bear, and the longer you are visible and moving, the meaner that bear is going to get. What that means in an organizational setting is that you are no longer engaged in the warfare of work, but are instead facing a genocidal process. Leadership has given the signal that you are to be eliminated and it is okay to attack you, the mob has formed and the bear is coming your way. The more you fight the mob, the more force will be used to compel your elimination – regardless of how accurate, fair or even legal the claims are that are used to justify your elimination. Your anger will be treated as evidence of threatening behavior, your fear will be evidence of paranoid thinking, your confusion will be evidence of your erratic state and mental impairment, and your impaired productivity – from having your responsibilities taken away, your contributions ignored, your time invested in specious “investigations” and fighting for your job, and your emotions exhausted by the sheer weight of the battle – will become evidence that you can’t do the job. Importantly, reason – and public scrutiny – will not stop the aggression, but intensify it. The more you demonstrate that the attacks against you are wrong, illegal and just plain cruel, the more wrong, illegal and cruel they will become.

In order to survive, it may be helpful to take a lesson from those who survived the Holocaust. When the Holocaust got underway, those who fled early suffered the least and recovered the fastest. The longer a potential target remained in the shadow of the genocide, the more they suffered. Thus, the moment you discern the first scent of mobbing heading your way, lay low; if the mobbing has progressed, play dead. It may be necessary to file internal complaints to preserve potential legal claims, but the more you do, the more the aggression will intensify, so ask yourself if you really want to go that route. You may well lose your job unfairly, even illegally, and suffer grave losses as a result. But battling the grizzly bear can cost you your life.

To save it, consider these tactics:

  • The more evidence you produce to defeat your attackers’ claims and actions, the more determined they will be to get rid of you – which means finding fault any way they can. Mobbing is not a conflict over facts and reasons, but a conflict over power and emotion. Reserve the evidence for future legal claims if you must, but whatever evidence you provide, keep it to a minimum, fact based, and stripped of emotion or counter-attacks. It may be helpful to have an attorney or pragmatic friend – unassociated with the workplace – draft your complaints or responses for you to be submitted in your name, to minimize the emotion.
  • Communicate to your closest friends and colleagues at work (or wherever it is that you are being mobbed) that you want to keep them out of this and will be keeping your distance until this is over. They will be relieved, grateful to you, and have less reason to turn on you. Get your emotional support elsewhere.
  • Do not assume that if your conflict involves your status as a member of a group of people (by gender, race, ideology, whatever) that other members of the group will support you, no matter how blatant the discrimination. They will be courted by management, provided rewards, and they will be afraid. They will almost always turn against you. The exception to this rule is when the group has been established within the organization for some time and they are secure with their positions – in other words, they have critical mass. The less diversity within the organization and the more recent the diversification of the workplace, the more likely the other members of the group will declare that there is no discrimination and you are the problem.
  • Similarly, do not expect that if you file a sexual harassment action, that feminists will support you, and do not expect that if you are accused of sexual harassment, that men will support you – no matter how vocal they have been about their views on the topic. For the same reasons that those closest to you and a member of your same group are likely to turn on you, you will be alone if you file, or are subjected to, any internal investigation.
  • Do not expect that a person’s political ideology, stated values, or religion will have any bearing on how they respond to your attack. The more they are committed to a moral framework, the more strongly they will likely condemn you so that they can persuade themselves that they are acting within their moral code.
  • Beware the bully label. If you are angry, complain, or express anything negative, you can expect to be labeled a bully at some point in the mobbing process. Zero tolerance policies for bullying, sexual harassment, racism, discrimination, and workplace violence might sound like progress, but they enable an organization to justify eliminating anyone once they are accused of any of these offenses. Lay low so that you are not accused.
  • Bear in mind that the most effective accusations are those which are outlandish, and/or contrary to everything you openly believe in, a principle which Joseph Goebbels well understood when he advised Hitler that if you tell a lie big enough and often enough, people will believe it. If you openly oppose sexual abuse, you may well be accused of sexual misconduct. If you openly oppose racism, you may well be accused of making racist remarks.
  • This is because people tend to believe an accusation of such nature could not possibly be made unless there was some evidence to support it.
  • Moreover, as people are conditioned to view you adversely and be prompted by “concern” for you and to “watch for” certain signs, they will see what they are told to look for.
  • Do not expect threats of lawsuits, appearances by attorneys, internal investigations, transparency, or reporters to calm the storm. It will worsen it. If you consult an attorney, do not let your employers know. An attorney eager for a lawsuit will probably not have your best interest in mind.
  • Get out. No matter what the cost, mobbing is not something most survive. Take pro-active steps to protect your health, career and finances by finding new employment, before your reputation and your spirit are destroyed. Whatever the costs of leaving, consider your assets and preserve then. Leave before your reputation is destroyed, your finances wiped out by attorney fees, your spirit savagely attacked. When you are at war, you can win. But mobbing is not a form of warfare, it is a form of genocide, and the only way to survive genocide is to flee.
[Note: Anyone currently experiencing mobbing should always seek in-person counseling from reputable experts to determine the best way forward based on their own unique situation.]  
Related articles