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When Conflict In The Workplace Escalates To Emotional Abuse

Millions of men and women of all ages, ethnic, and racial backgrounds all across the U.S. hate going to work, gradually fall into despair and often become gravely ill. Some flee from jobs they used to love, others endure the situation unable to figure a way out. “Every day was like going into battle. I never knew when the next bomb would be dropped. I was afraid to trust anyone for fear they were the enemy. My physical and mental reserves were depleted. I knew I had to have relief soon. But there was no letup,” said Diana when we asked how she felt each day. What is going on? Why is this happening? How prevalent is this? What can be done?

What we are describing here has been identified as “mobbing” and “bullying” at the workplace. Co-workers, superiors or subordinates, attack a person’s dignity, integrity and competence, repeatedly, over a number of weeks, months or even years. A person is being subjected to emotional abuse, subtly or bluntly, often falsely accused of wrongdoing, and is persistently humiliated.

Dr. Heinz Leymann, a psychologist and medical scientist, pioneered the research about this workplace issue in Sweden in the early 80ties. He identified the behavior as mobbing and described it as “psychological terror” involving “hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly towards one individual.” Leymann identified some 45 typical mobbing behaviors such as withholding information, isolation, badmouthing, constant criticism, circulation of unfounded rumors, ridicule, yelling, etc.

Because the organization ignores, condones or even instigates the behavior, it can be said that the victim, seemingly helpless against the powerful and many, is indeed “mobbed.” The result is always injury — physical or mental distress or illness, social misery, and often, but not always, expulsion from the workplace. And sadly, the victims did not have a reputation of not performing well, not meeting organizational standards, or who could not get along with others to begin with. Quite the contrary, more often than not, the targets had been esteemed members of the organization.

Although mobbing and bullying behaviors overlap, mobbing denotes a “ganging up” by the leader–organization, superior, co-worker, or subordinate–who rallies others into systematic and frequent “mob-like” behavior. In contrast to bullying, mobbing is clearly a group behavior. Bullying, on the other hand, denotes a one-on-one harassment. In a mobbing, management is often tacitly involved. This is why, in such a case, a victim rarely can find recourse.

Mobbing can happen to anyone. It is not aggression against someone who belongs to a protected class, i.e. discrimination based on age, gender, race, creed, nationality, disability or pregnancy. It is therefore that bullying/mobbing behaviors have been termed general or “status-blind” harassment by Prof. David Yamada of the Suffolk University Law School.

Impact of Mobbing

Mobbing–the emotional abuse–is a form of violence. In fact, in the book Violence at Work, published by the International Labor Office (ILO) in 1998, mobbing and bullying are mentioned in the same list as homicide, rape, or robbery. Even though bullying and mobbing behaviors may seem “harmless,” in contrast to rape or other manifestations of physical violence, the effects on the victim–especially if the mobbing is happening over an extended period of time–have been so devastating for individuals that some have contemplated suicide. And, we cannot exclude that some cases of the “going postal syndrome” may not also have been a consequence of what those individuals perceived as emotional abuse on the job.

Mobbing and bullying affect primarily a person’s emotional well-being and physical health. Depending on the severity, frequency, and duration of the occurrences and how resilient an individual may be, persons may suffer from a whole range of psychological and physical symptoms: from occasional sleep difficulties to nervous breakdowns, from irritability to depression, from difficulties to concentrate, to panic- or even to heart attacks. What were occasional absences may become frequent and extended sick leaves.

Many persons who have become a target of a mobbing are damaged to such an extent that they can no longer accomplish their tasks. At the end, they resign–voluntarily or involuntaril–,are terminated, or forced into early retirement. Ironically, the victims are portrayed as the ones at fault, as the ones who brought about their own downfalls. And in numerous instances, the symptoms after a person has been terminated or resigned, can continue and intensify and have led to the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

And it is not only a person’s health and sense of well-being that is seriously affected. Their families and their organizations are gravely impacted as well. Relationships suffer, and company productivity is impacted as energies revolve around the mobbing and divert attention from important and significant tasks at hand.

How It Starts and Why It Happens

It often starts with a conflict, any type of conflict. However, no matter how hard an individual may try to resolve an issue, it does not get resolved. The individual does not seem to get recourse. The issue does not go away and escalates to a point of no return.

What could have been resolved with a bit of good will and the appropriate mechanisms in place, now becomes a contest between who is right and who is wrong. Some of the accusations and demeaning attacks may be guided by a scapegoat mentality, the need for personal power over others, and by personal animosities, by fears or jealousies. Group-psychology and a complex array of social-organizational dynamics begin to play their part.

How, you might ask, when there seem to be more structures and laws designed to protect workers than ever before, is this particular workplace behavior–mobbing–so prevalent and yet awareness about the issue so scarce? We believe there are three reasons.

One is that mobbing behaviors are ignored, tolerated, misinterpreted or actually instigated by the company or the organization’s management as a deliberate strategy. The second reason is that this behavior has not yet been identified as a workplace behavior clearly different from sexual harassment or discrimination. And thirdly, more often than not, the victims are worn down. They feel exhausted and incapable of defending themselves, let alone initiating legal action.

The Costs of Mobbing

In 1991 C. Brady Wilson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in workplace trauma, wrote in the Personnel Journal (now Workforce Magazine) that real or perceived abuse of employees amounted to a loss of billions of dollars: “Workplace trauma, as psychologists refer to the condition caused by employee abuse, is emerging as a more crippling and devastating problem for employees and employers alike than all the other work-related stresses put together.” The actual costs in terms of lost productivity, health care and legal costs, not to speak of the psycho-social implications, are yet to be measured.

Dr. Harvey Hornstein, professor of social-organizational psychology at Columbia University Teachers College, in his book Brutal Bosses and Their Prey, estimated that as many as 20 million Americans face workplace abuse on a daily basis–a near epidemic.

Awareness Grows

Nevertheless, awareness is growing. Bullying and mobbing at work is increasingly being discussed in the media and in professional organizations. Researchers in organizational behavior are now devoting their attention to this topic and a number of articles have appeared in academic journals and a handful of books have been written over the last three years devoted to work abuse, brutal bosses, bullying, and mobbing.

What Can Be Done

Persons who have been mobbed or become targets of bullies have several options. Most importantly, they need to understand that there is a name for what they are experiencing, that the phenomenon is well known and is increasingly being researched in this country. They need to understand that they have become victimized and that there is very little that they could have done differently. Secondly, they need to assess all their options in the short, medium, and long run: Is there any way to gain recourse that they haven’t tried yet? Is finding another job within the company a possibility? Are they prepared to look for another job? What do they need to do to prepare for the transition? Do they need medical or therapeutic intervention? We advise people to weigh all their options carefully, to be assertive and most importantly, to take control of their situation. And, we advise to leave their workplace sooner rather than later and accept temporary sacrifices rather than to endure ongoing humiliation that could have much more serious health effects later.

Management too, needs to be vigilant and spot any early signals of mobbing. A company policy that enforces respectful treatment of employees and rewards civility at the workplace can go along way in preventing mobbing from occurring.

Because of the extensive literature and media coverage in Europe, the awareness of mobbing in the workplace has become very widespread there. Mobbing has not only become a household word in Scandinavia and in German-speaking countries but several countries have enacted new proactive and protective occupational safety laws, including emotional well-being on the job, to address the mobbing behavior legally. For example, in 1993 the Swedish National Board of Occupational Safety and Health has adopted an Ordinance Concerning Victimization at Work. In addition, new organizations have been created to help victims of mobbing all across Europe, and Australia. Measures have been initiated in a relatively brief time period to deal with mobbing behaviors, help mobbing victims and help prevent further mobbing from occurring. For example, telephone hot lines have been installed and contact addresses for receiving counseling or advice have been published in the daily press.


Mobbing is emotional mistreatment, abuse, committed directly or indirectly by a group of co-workers directed at anybody. People who have been affected by mobbing are suffering immensely. Mobbing is as a serious workplace issue most often leading to voluntary or nonvoluntary resignation or dismissal. The social and economic impact of the mobbing syndrome has yet to be measured in quantitative terms in the U.S.

Mobbing can only persist as long as it is allowed to persist. Organizational leadership plays the most important part in its prevention. By enforcing decency, civility, and high ethical standards in the workplace and by creating a nourishing environment, bullying and mobbing will not surface. There are millions of enlightened managers and leaders and thousands of companies that do just that. They serve as good examples and places of refuge.


Noa Zanolli

  Noa Zanolli, Ph.D., is a Swiss social anthropologist, teacher and mediator living in Bern, Switzerland. In the U.S., she worked for several years as a mediator in a community mediation center in Ames, IA, was Director of Education at the Iowa Peace Institute, and has been working internationally as… MORE >

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