Workplace Mobbing

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by C. T. Wuerker, Contributed to Healthy Workplace Advocates 4/7/15




Workplace mobbing is the persecution and victimization of a worker by a group within the organization.  In mobbing, the victim is “disparaged and belittled by perpetrators who are acting within the legitimacy of the organizational domain.” (Duffy & Sperry 2012, xi)  Mobbing involves perpetrators who are comprised of leaders and followers, the victim (usually one) also called the target, the witnesses also called bystanders, and the organizational members who have the power and status to stop the mobbing but choose not to do so.  These are also called “the organization.” The organization either turns a blind eye or actively participates in the mobbing. (Duffy & Sperry 2012, xi)  Most researchers distinguish between workplace bullying and workplace mobbing by saying that in bullying, the perpetrator is an individual whereas in mobbing, the perpetrator is a group.  But Duffy and Sperry add to their definition that in mobbing, the perpetrator group recruits management to add legitimacy and power to their construction of the victim as unworthy to be a member of the workplace.  So according to Duffy and Sperry, if bullying is perpetrated by a group within the workplace but does not include management, then it is still not mobbing.  Other theorists do not agree with this definition.  Duffy and Sperry also distinguish between bullying and mobbing in that, in bullying, (generally) one perpetrator commits a series of aggressive and damaging acts to harm the victim.  The perpetrator has the aim of constructing the victim as an incompetent employee so that the victim’s cries for help are ignored.  In contrast, in mobbing, the perpetrators are bent on constructing the victim as unstable, or immoral, or weird, psychologically damaged, or less than a legitimate member of the workplace.  There is more character assassination in mobbing than in bullying.  Also, since bullying usually involves just one perpetrator, there need not be gossip and innuendo.  However, in mobbing, since the object is to force the unwanted employee out of the workplace, and this is done by a group, then gossip and innuendo are an essential tool for the group to construct a grotesque narrative about the victim.

 The first major study of workplace mobbing, though this term was not yet used, was done by Carroll Brodsky (The Harassed Worker, 1976).  Early precursor studies in ethology were done by Konrad Lorenz (1963, 1965, 1968) on animal mobbing.  The first major researcher in workplace mobbing who ran a clinic and published his findings was Heinz Leymann.  His work was in German and Swedish.  He did his major work in the 1980s and 1990s.  He coined the term ‘mobbing’ and described it as “psychoterror” and described it as “hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly towards one individual.” (Davenport et al. 1999, 22) The first book in the English language on workplace mobbing to appear was that by Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott in 1999.  The finest scholarly book in the English language is Duffy and Sperry 2012.  There have been a few dozen journal articles in academic journals in the last 25 years, but they are not generally accessible to the public.  Whereas workplace bullying is beginning to hit the mainstream, workplace mobbing is still little understood by the general public.


        According to Leymann, mobbing generally occurs in five phases (Davenport et al. 1999, 38): 


 Phase  1:   A critical incident sets the mobbing dynamic in motion.

 Phase  2:   The mobbers engage in aggressive acts which deliver steady doses of aggression and render the victim powerless to retaliate. The victim instead is forced to absorb this aggression.  The mobbers engage in gossip and innuendo and construct the victim as ‘the other’, an outcast, a fraud, or otherwise unworthy to be a member of the workplace. 

 Phase  3:   These assaults continue until the victim is worn down and finally files a complaint with management.  However, instead of extending help to the victim, management either neglects the victim or positively supports the persecutors and withholds support from the victim.  If the victim does not get satisfaction from her management, she often goes over her management’s heads and lodges a complaint to HR.  What she does not realize is that HR works for management; HR’s view of its own role is that its job is to protect the organization (applied in this case, the perpetrators!) from her, not to protect her from some imagined ‘mobbing.’  So now the trap is sprung.  She is in bondage. 

 Phase  4:    In this phase, the victim is branded as “difficult” or “mentally ill.”  This has the effect of depriving the victim of any legitimacy in their cries for help.  The victim is then locked in a torture chamber where the perpetrators can continue to deliver assaults and the victim cannot fight back. 

 Phase  5:   Expulsion.  Finally the victim is either terminated, or quits, or has a nervous breakdown, or ‘goes postal’.  If the victim goes postal, that is, acts out from the enormous stress and degradation, the final insult and injury is that the victim is portrayed as a “disgruntled employee.”  Generally the news media do not dig deep enough to find out that the “disgruntled employee” was in fact a victim.  This becomes a classic case of ‘blaming the victim.’

Leymann developed a typology of mobbing (Davenport et al. 1999, 36-7):

First Category:

Impact on self-expression and the way communication happens:

(1) Your superior restricts the opportunity for you to express yourself.  (2) You are interrupted constantly.  (3) Colleagues/coworkers restrict your opportunity to express yourself.  (4) You are yelled at and loudly scolded.  (5) Your work is constantly criticized.  (6) There is constant criticism about your private life.  (7) You are terrorized on the telephone.  (8) Oral threats are made.  (9) Written threats are sent.  (10) Contact is denied through looks are gestures.  (11) Contact is denied through innuendoes.


Second Category:

Attacks on one’s social relations

(1)People do not speak with you anymore.  (2) You cannot talk to anyone, i.e. access to others is denied.  (3) You are put into a workspace that is isolated from others.  (4) Colleagues are forbidden to talk with you.  (5) You are treated as if you are invisible. 

Third Category:

Attacks on your reputation

(1)People talk badly behind your back.  (2) Unfounded rumors are circulated.  (3) You are ridiculed.  (3) You are treated as if you are mentally ill.  (4) You are forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation/examination.  (5) A handicap is ridiculed.  (6) People imitate your gestures, walk, voice, to ridicule you.  (7) Your political or religious beliefs are ridiculed.  (8) Your private life is ridiculed.  (9) Your nationality is ridiculed.  (10) You are forced to do a job that affects your self-esteem.  (11) Your efforts are judged in a wrong or demeaning way.  (12) Your decisions are always questioned.  (13) You are called demeaning names. (14) Sexual innuendoes.

 Fourth Category

Attacks on the quality of one’s professional and life situation

(1)There are no special tasks for you.  (2) Supervisors take away assignments, so that you cannot even invent new tasks to do.  (3) You are given meaningless jobs to carry out.  (4) You are given tasks that are below your qualifications. (5) You are continually given new tasks.  (6) You are given tasks that affect your self-esteem.  (7) You are given tasks that are way beyond your qualifications, in order treated as if you are invisible. 

Third Category:

Attacks on your reputation

(1)People talk badly behind your back.  (2) Unfounded rumors are circulated.  (3) You are ridiculed.  (3) You are treated as if you are mentally ill.  (4) You are forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation/examination.  (5) A handicap is ridiculed.  (6) People imitate your gestures, walk, voice, to ridicule you.  (7) Your political or religious beliefs are ridiculed.  (8) Your private life is ridiculed.  (9) Your nationality is ridiculed.  (10) You are forced to do a job that affects your self-esteem.  (11) Your efforts are judged in a wrong or demeaning way.  (12) Your decisions are always questioned.  (13) You are called demeaning names. (14) Sexual innuendoes.

 Fourth Category:

Attacks on the quality of one’s professional and life situation

(1)There are no special tasks for you.  (2) Supervisors take away assignments, so that you cannot even invent new tasks to do.  (3) You are given meaningless jobs to carry out.  (4) You are given tasks that are below your qualifications. (5) You are continually given new tasks.  (6) You are given tasks that affect your self-esteem.  (7) You are given tasks that are way beyond your qualifications, in order to discredit you.  (8) Causing general damages that create financial costs to you, damaging your home or workplace.

 Fifth Category:

Direct attacks on a person’s health            

(1)You are forced to do a physically strenuous job.  (2) Threats of physical violence are made.  (3) Light violence is used to threaten you. (4) Physical abuse.  (5) Outright sexual harassment.


            Mobbing can be categorized in terms of the degree of damage it can cause (Davenport et al. 1999, 39):

 Mobbing of the first degree: The victim resists, escapes at an early stage, and is fully rehabilitated at the same workplace, say, in another department, or in another workplace.

 Mobbing of the second degree: The victim is unable to resist, and is unable to escape immediately, and so suffers temporary or prolonged mental and/or physical disability, and has difficulty re-entering the workforce.

Mobbing of the third degree:  The victim is so damaged that they cannot re-enter the workforce.   Rehabilitation is unlikely unless a very specialized protocol is followed.


            Davenport et al. (1999, 41) listed ten key factors of the mobbing syndrome:

1) Assaults on the dignity, integrity, credibility and professional competence of employees;

2) Negative, humiliating, intimidating, abusive malevolent, and controlling communication;

3) Committed directly, or indirectly, in subtle or obvious ways;

4) Perpetrated by one or more staff members—“vulturing;” 

5) Occurring in a continued, multiple, and systematic fashion, over some time;

6) Portraying the victimized person as being at fault;

7) Engineered to discredit, confuse, intimidate, isolate , and force the person into submission;

8) Committed with the intent to force the person out;

9) Representing the removal from the workplace as the victim’s choice;

10) Not recognized, misinterpreted, ignored, tolerated, encouraged, or even instigated by the management of the organization.




 According to the 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby Survey, 37% of all workers will experience workplace bullying at some point of their work life.  Another 12% will at least be witnesses or bystanders to workplace bullying.  It is likely that a subset of the phenomena studied by the WBI/Zogby Survey is workplace mobbing. (See page on this website for updated 2014 Zogby Survey results)


           Leymann found in 1990 that at any given time, 3.5% of the population in Sweden, or 154,000 out of the 4.4M workforce, were mobbing victims at any time.  Leymann also attributed some 15% of suicides in Sweden to workplace mobbing. (Davenport et al. 1999, 25) 


            A study by Chen, Hwu, Kung, Chin, and Wang (2008) found that of a cross-section of 230 nurses, aides, and clerks at a psychiatric hospital, 25% reported being a victim of workplace harassment or violence in the past year.  Another 50% reported witnessing workplace harassment or violence in the past year; over 60% had personally experienced some form of workplace harassment or violence during their employment. 


            A study by Niedhammer et al. (2006) found that of a sample of 3132 men and 4562 women working in SE France, 8.8% of men and 10.7% of women reported exposure to “bullying” (using Leymann’s definition of mobbing) in the previous 12 months.


            In a study by Quine (2003) of 1000 junior hospital physicians, 37% reported having been bullied in the previous 12 months, and 69% reported being witnesses.


              A study by Yildirim and Yildirim (2007) of 505 nurses in Turkey found that 86.5% reported exposure to workplace mobbing in the previous 12 months. 


            The above studies are cited in Duffy and Sperry (2012) pp. 131-141.  In total, Duffy and Sperry cite 27 studies.  I have only cited studies with mobbing-related statistics. 




            Workplace bullying is typically triggered by the feelings of inadequacy in the bully.  The bully frequently feels threatened by the competence of the target and so wages a campaign of bullying to portray the target as incompetent.  This gives the bully a feeling of relative power and control. 


            Usually, mobbing is triggered by some difference found in the victim.  It can be the victim’s appearance, a possession of an accent, a significantly superior work ethic, a difference in education, a difference in political views, a difference in vocabulary, a difference in culture, a difference in attitudes.  In other words, the difference does not legitimate a mobbing.  Mobbing involves a significant component of clannishness.   Frequently mobbing is waged against a superior employee.  However, if that difference is not a legally protected difference (e.g. race, religion, ADA status, etc.) then the victim does not have legal protection.  This employee may be resisting moral lapses which are a part of the culture of the workplace.  Or, the victim may be fastidious about carrying out the officially stated rules or objectives of the organization, but most of the members of the organization have long since recognized that those rules are no longer the operative rules.  In other words, the victim may not recognize the ‘double-bind’ nature of some of the organizational norms.  The divide between the victim’s application of the norms vs. the group’s application of the norms, motivate the development of them/us perceptions.  These perceptions become a precursor to the “critical incident” of Leymann’s Phase One above, and intensifies as the campaign of unethical communication progresses.


            Another possible cause is explained in Wyatt & Hare 1997, 68.  According to Wyatt & Hare, 95% of all workplaces are non-collaborative and therefore are abusive at some level.  This abuse is sometimes blatant, but more often is so pervasive and is so deeply programmed into the organizational norms that the abuses become unconscious.  In abusive workplaces, workers survive by being in denial, and by entering what Wyatt and Hare call a “work trance” when they walk in the door at the start of shift.  Nevertheless, workers still experience and absorb this abuse.  When the abuse becomes sufficiently toxic, workers will need to ‘offload’ their anger and aggression, sometimes by acting out.  Since workers cannot express anger toward their uplines, they may sometimes seek out a scapegoat to carry off the negative feeling of the workplace.  So then, scapegoating becomes a way for frustrated workers to cast off frustration and experience a catharsis.  I do not see any place where Wyatt and Hare explicitly use the term “mobbing,” and I do not find “mobbing” in the index, but then this was written only in 1997.   But what they are describing is indeed mobbing.    

Another possible cause of mobbing relates to narcissism or psychopathy.  As background, the standard measure of psychopathy is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) (q.v.).  For a person to score high enough to qualify as a psychopath, they must have strong components of both narcissism and antisocial tendencies.  It is found that if a narcissist is successful in rising to a managerial level (which is frequently the case), he will nearly always surround himself with sycophants in order to secure narcissistic supply (see Vaknin 2007; Babiak and Hare 2006).  These supporters play the role of enablers or codependents and give rise to corporate narcissism (q.v. David Thomas’ work in  A narcissist or a psychopath-as-narcissist will value or validate people in his organization who buy into the ‘reality’ he has forced onto the organization but devalue or “annihilate” anyone who objects to the reality he forces on the workplace or “pathological narcissistic space” (Vaknin 2007).  In other words, a narcissist validates anyone who will give narcissistic supply by validating his narcissistic fantasy, and will fly into a rage against anyone who (perhaps even unwittingly) withholds narcissistic supply by deflating his narcissistic fantasy.  One of the methods used by a narcissistic or psychopathic manager can be to incite mobbing against an employee to discredit and drive out any detractors (see Babiak and Hare 2006).  And so, mobbing can be due to ‘spontaneous combustion’ or it can be incited by a narcissistic or psychopathic employee or boss.



The 27 studies cited in Duffy and Sperry list the following health-related impacts of workplace mobbing: depression, phobic syndromes, anxiety syndromes, hypertension, heart disease, eating disorders, drug addiction, PTSD symptoms, psychological distress, decreased job satisfaction, suicidal ideation, feeling tired, stress headaches, excessive eating or loss of appetite, gastro-intestinal problems, extreme sadness and crying, life away from work negatively impacted, insomnia, nightmares, obsessive thinking, stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure, blurred vision, respiratory infections, hives, heart palpitations, chest pains, panic attacks, sudden death, depression, joint suicide, homicidal rage.  It should be seen that workplace mobbing negatively impacts both mental and physical health of its victims.  According to Duffy and Sperry (2012, 172), workplace mobbing results in “totalizing losses:” loss of job, possible loss of career, loss of health and retirement benefits, loss of professional reputation and re-employability, loss of income and finances, loss of personal and professional identity, loss of family equanimity, loss of work relationships, loss of health, loss of a sense of security about the future, loss of confidence and loss of belief in fairness and justice, and sometimes a loss of life.


Pros and Cons


It should be noted that it is only with Leymann’s articles (ca. 1980s and 1990s) that the existence of workplace mobbing as a subset of workplace bullying, or as a separate type of workplace aggression, has been established as an area of scholarly research. 


Workplace mobbing has been outlawed in France, Sweden, and several other Western European countries; in several Canadian provinces, and in

Australia.  Workplace mobbing and workplace bullying are still legal in each of the States of the U.S.  There are several reasons for this. One reason is that a law against bullying/mobbing is seen by the business community as being a threat to the legal doctrine of at-will employment.  The doctrine of at-will employment says that employers are legally not required to have a reason for terminating employees.  A strong anti-bullying or anti-mobbing law could then be used by a disgruntled employee, it is thought, to prevent a legitimate termination by raising the spectre of legal consequences.


            A second reason for the hesitation by the states from passing an anti-bullying/ anti-mobbing law is the claim made by the business community that bullying/mobbing are already covered by the anti-harassment laws (e.g. sexual harassment, anti-discrimination laws).  But it should be noted that mobbing and bullying are normally triggered by factors that are not legally protected.


A third reason why it has been so difficult to pass an anti-bullying/anti-mobbing law in the U.S. has been that the legal threshold for general harassment has been set unreasonably high, according to Yamada (2004).  Indeed, there are cases where an agent or his employer can be sued for a general harassment, not covered by the anti-discrimination laws.  But the legal threshold has been set so high that the victim would have to be subjected to conduct which is outrageous to a ‘reasonable person.’  In case law, that legal threshold is rarely attained.  However, it has been observed by researchers that most bullying and mobbing are carried out in at a lower level, or in a clandestine manner, within the existing policies and procedures of the organization.  (see Abdenndur 2000)  The victim is injured and ejected from the workplace more frequently by a process of wearing down by means of an unrelenting stream of political and psychological assaults at the rate of several per week over a period, on average of about 21 months.



             Workplace mobbing is emerging as an established area of academic research in workplace aggression.  It is often clandestine in character, and is usually kept hidden by the rules of engagement, by a complicit management, and a complicit HR.  Because of the devastating health effects of mobbing on the victim and collateral damage to the employer’s interests, the eradication of mobbing is a public health issue and calls for legal protections.




Abdennur, Alexander (2000) Camouflaged Aggression: The Hidden Threat to Individuals and Organizations. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, Ltd.


Babiak, Paul and Robert Hare (2006) Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. NY: HarperCollins.

Chen, W., W. Hwu, S. Kung,  H. Chiu, and J. Wang (2008) Prevalents and determinants of workplace violence of healthcare workers in a psychiatric hospital in Taiwan. J. of Occ. Health 50: 288-293.

Davenport, Noa, Ruth Distler Schwartz, and Gail Purcell Elliott (1999) Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing.

Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry (2012) Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. Oxford, UK:  Oxford Univ. Press


Duffy, Maureen and Let Sperry (2014) Overcoming Mobbing. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press


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


Leymann, Heinz and Kurt Banryd (1990) Risks of violence in the workplace regulations and their implementation in Sweden.  In The Victimology Handbook Research Findings, Treatment, and Public Policy, pp. 361-371.  NY: Garland.


 Leymann, Heinz (1996a) The Mobbing Encyclopedia. Found at


Leymann, Heinz (1996b) The content and development of mobbing at work.  In D. Zapf and H. Leymann (Eds.) Mobbing and Victimization at Work.  (pp. 165-184). 


Hove, UK: Psychology Press.


Leymann, Heinz and A. Gustafsson (1996) Mobbing at work and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder.  European J. of Work and Org. Psychology 5:251-275.


Leymann, Heinz and A. Gustafsson (1998) Suicides due to mobbing/bullying—about nurses’ high risks in the labour market.  Geneva: World Health Organization Internal Report.

 Niedhammer, I. et al. (2006) Association between workplace bullying and depressive symptoms in the French working population. J. of Psychosomatic Res. 61: 251-259.

 Quine, L. (2003) Workplace bullying, psychological distress, and job satisfaction in junior doctors. Cambridge Qtly. Of Healthcare Ethics 12: 91-101.

Vaknin, Sam (2007) Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. Prague: Narcissus Publications.

Wyatt, Judith and Chauncey Hare (1997) Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It.  Rochester, VT: Schenkman Books.

Yamada, David (2004) Crafting a legislative response to workplace bullying. Employee Rights and Employee Policy J. 8:475-521.

Yildirim, A., D. Yildirim, and A. Timucin (2007) Mobbing behaviors encountered by nurse teaching staff. Nursing Ethics 14:447-463.