What exactly does being "mobbed" at work imply?

I have just heard the word “mobbing” as in being ganged up on at work, causing post traumatic stress syndrome (and potentially violence?), as this is now in the news with the recent unpleasantness.

http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/~kwesthue/ohs-canada.htm (Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo: A summary of research on workplace mobbing published in OHS Canada, Canada’s Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 8)

I am fascinated by this; can anyone share their stories of being mobbed or witnessing such mobbing at your work? What exactly happens? I need more detail, I don’t get it, obviously it is not a PHYSICAL mobbing, by some kind of social smack down. What does it entail? More detail please.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen it used just as a synonym for bullying.

There was a postdoc who flamed out in one of the research groups in my workplace, and started mass emailing the entire School about how he was being regularly ‘mobbed’. I think he was Italian, so I just took it to be a rough translation of bullying. From your link, though, it seems the word is regularly used in this context in some countries.

The name is improper or misleading because in English it has more of a “swarming” implication - physical assault and direct (noisy) confrontation.

A more appropriate term might be bullying, whch is exactly what it sounds like. I first saw this described in an article on bullying in the workplace in France. I suppose it’s more prevalent in european countries, where at-will firing is usually impossible. Recently in Canada, “stress leave” has become a common tactic to escape problems - either brought on by others, or your own. A manager that does not control this sort of problem will have to answer why their absentee rate is up due to “stress leave”.

My impression, from this and the other article is - you know those cliques of nasty girls pushing themselves up by pushing everyone else down? They don’t stop with high school, they cary on into the workplace. That problem is less prevalent with boys, because you taunt a larger male teenager - especially a socially inept one - at your peril and guys seemless concerned about status. As an adult, men are more required to be under control than in their teen years, and they use this sort of behaviour to settle scores.

But, I have trouble imagining this nowadays in a large organization. If your boss doesn’t handle a harrassment complaint, then you go to HR - who are probably not part of the self-important clique. They then have to document the problem and see it addressed, not sweep it under the rug. When the lawsuits or Human Rights commission complaints start flying, a documented history is not what you want the government to see. Complaints not properly addressed, or a string of similar problems, will cause the manager to lose his job.

I suspect teh problem is worst then with smaller, less formal companies.

The term has become well-known in a workplace and school context in Germany in the last two decades; apparently also in other European countries.

Bullying is perhaps a misleading synonym. What’s at issue is not overt taunting, threats etc. in the manner of a bully at school beating up others, but a campaign of pinpricks - small unkindnesses, rumours, ‘forgetting’ to include a person in the distribution of needed information, etc. - aggravated by the fact once this has got under the target’s skin the target becomes an underperforming employee in fact (a common symptom is malingering).

The perperators may or may not be encouraged by the target’s manager because he wants the target to resign.

The problem with going to HR is with the nature of the pinpricks, every one of which, when reported to others, has looked at by itself the aspect of life’s minor unpleasantnesses. No actionable insults, no physical threats, no documented rumour spread by a documented person; something like not having been on the address list of an e-mail looks pretty lame to complain of. So the complaint of the victim looks very much like ‘they are mean to me’ and the victim gets pigeonholed as an oversensitive or paranoid person (because an oversensitive or paranoid person would, in fact, complain of the same things).

The example in article linked is fairly full of offenses that would be pretty close to firing offenses today; calling someone a “cripple”, making off-colour sexist remarks, refusing to work with the person, ignoring complaints about sexist remarks; plus there’s the failure to properly document and investigate each of the complaints. Most big unions have a women’s rights committee in the head office, so the local “brother” is going to find things difficult to sweep under the rug nowadays.

If a group can manage this type of harassment for months or years without stepping over the line, and without having some disgruntled ex-employee back up the victim’s story, then they probably will succeed. That’s a tall order, for a group to all control themselves like that. Usually, a behaviour pattern consists of escalating levels of offensiveness as the group realizes each previous event was tolerated - until finally someone crosses the line and there’s no doubt what happened.

Very interested. I’ve seen “mobbed at work” used in some confusing ways that maybe will make more sense now.

To me, if I said “I’ve been mobbed at work” I’d simply mean overworked and it was starting to pile up (the work is “mobbing” me, not the people).

Yeah, to me it would mean that we had a crowd of patrons.

Maybe that’s the US meaning? It’s certainly the only one I’ve heard. Things like “Gee, I was mobbed at work today! The phone was practically ringing off the hook and people kept coming in without appointments.”

I’ve seen mobbing in my workplace, but I’ve also seen legitimate complaints from multiple sources regarding the conduct of some employees DISMISSED as mobbing.

Yep. I think that’s the common US usage and that’s what people would assume you were talking about.

“Gee, I was mobbed at work today!”
“Did you tak to HR about it?”
“Ummm, what?”

This is my understanding of the term as well. It isn’t commonly used in the US, but I did a little reading on the subject while I was at my old, horrible job. What my coworkers (actually only three of them, but this included my boss and the two women I shared a workspace with) did to me wasn’t exactly bullying. They did not openly insult me, and there was certainly no violence. But from the beginning they were…unfriendly…and things continued to decline.

On a daily basis I experienced things like these coworkers ignoring me when I said “Good morning” or everyone suddenly stopping talking when I came into the room. Days went by with these three people saying nothing to me at all unless it was to make some nitpicky criticism, including that I was standing in the wrong place, I typed too loudly, I was overdressed, I was underdressed (not on the same day), that I spent too much time at the front desk (this was at a library), that I didn’t spend enough time at the front desk, and that I didn’t “ask enough questions”. But anytime I did ask these three anything I was either totally ignored or given an answer that had nothing to do with what I was asking.

My boss would claim she’d told or given me things that she hadn’t. She’d schedule meetings with me, then cancel them at the last minute or not cancel them and just not be around at the scheduled time. When we did meet she’d do things like tell me I wasn’t allowed to use PowerPoint when giving a class presentation – she actually told me I was supposed to read aloud from written notes. I also wasn’t allowed to make new handouts or revise old handouts, even though the ones we had already were pretty bad. She once chewed me out for supposedly giving a student incorrect information over the phone (when my boss wasn’t there) when I not only had no memory of speaking to this student on the phone, but could prove that I had in fact emailed this same student the correct information. My working hours were changed three times in secret meetings between my immediate coworker and my boss. The first time this happened I found out my schedule had been changed only when my boss said “Why aren’t you at the desk?” The second time we actually all met to decide upon the new schedule, and then a few days after we all agreed on it my boss told me that she’d decided to change it because my coworker didn’t like her new hours. This resulted in my having to change my schedule in a way I’d specifically asked that I not have to do (alternating day and night shifts). When I objected I was told that my coworker had “seniority”. She’d been there only a year longer than I had. We were also the same age, so my coworker wasn’t senior to me in that way.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on for hours about all the petty cruelties and Kafakesque mind-games these people pulled with me. I hadn’t been treated like this since middle school, and am still at a loss to explain what set these three women off. I got along perfectly well with the other five full-timers and all the part-time staff. I did go to HR, and the HR woman was sympathetic but not that helpful. Nothing that had been done to me was against the law or even a clear violation of the employee handbook. I had a meeting with the HR woman and my boss, and then another one with the HR woman, my boss, and the other two evil coworkers, and both times these people minimized the things they’d done and claimed that I was the problem – although their only actual criticisms of me were things like I listed above. FWIW I was popular with students and was told repeatedly by students that I was far more helpful than the other librarians.

I soon started looking for new work, which was good because my contract wound up not being renewed. I never actually got the normal performance review, my boss just said “This isn’t working out” and left me with the HR woman to fill out the necessary forms. Fortunately by this point I’d already had the phone interview with the place that would soon hire me.

Since the OP is asking for personal experiences, this may be better suited for IMHO than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

To add to tschild’s good explanation, and because Lamia’s story is such a classic example, there are two basic situations:

A group of co-workers decides to mob one victim. Sometimes out of spite; sometimes (esp. if the co-worker is new, or works better) they see themselves being shown up as lazy incompetents and want to get rid of the co-worker; sometimes over some imagined slight.

A good manager should notice and put a stop to this; this is why there’s a lot of attention on mobbing in the media here and the unions tell people to complain and keep a log, because it has very real psychologial effects on the victim: they can’t sleep, they start getting paranoid, they start to make real mistakes etc. The biggest problem is the perception that they are only imagining things, or that nobody else will believe them, which is why unions and big companies have special people you can talk to if you are being mobbed, who will help you deal with this and take you seriously.

However, the second situation is one where in the current climate of jobs being cut in a company, promotions becoming scarcer, a workplace enviroment that used to be friendly ten years ago suddenly becomes hostile. The co-workers that used to cooperate now suddenly (sometimes irrationally, sometimes for real, as management thinks this way) believe that a certain number of people will be fired or not promoted, and so they start thinking “It’s my hide or somebody else’s, so it should rather be somebody else”, and a war starts. Sometimes everybody against everybody, but also a group (and three people working together is already a group) targeting the “weakest” individual. That could be an older employee, or a woman with kids, or simply somebody seen as sensitive. They start to harass her. Often, in this situation, management will look the other way, figuring that if the victim quits on her own, the company saves the severance pay. (Sometimes there’s explicit instructions from upper to middle management to get rid of x% of employees any which way; sometimes it’s simply ignoring it, because if you close your eyes, you aren’t responsible for what others are doing.)
Or it’s simply bad managers who don’t notice what’s going on under their nose.

If I used such a term, this is the context I would use it as well. “I’m swamped at work” would mean I’m overloaded with tasks. If someone said: “I’ve been mobbed at work” I would similarly assume they are saying they’ve had an unending stream of people coming into their office or a chain of back-to-back meetings so that they’ve been overloaded by co-worker/client face time.

Based on the article, I would say that in a Canadian context, it would have been more accurate to use the term “bullying”. Edit: I’m actually surprised to see it in an article from my alma mater. I would never think to equate “mobbed at work” to mean “workplace harassment”, when “bullying” is more commonly understood for what is described in the article.

If I heard “mob” in a context of confrontation, it would be a physical confrontation involving a group of people physically pushing someone around all at once.

I’ve never heard it used in this way. I’m in the U.S.

I’ve used it myself, but only in the context of a retail store which was unusually busy and maybe the patrons seemed more demanding than usual.

“Oh, man, I was mobbed at work today! Everybody wanted everything wrapped and separate gift receipts and it didn’t slow down until 4 o’clock!”

My case was definitely one of the first type as described by constanze, but I have sometimes wondered if it was also one of the second type too.

Aside from having three evil coworkers, the big problem with this job was that I was hired as the second full-time Reference & Instruction Librarian. I can see how the reference and instruction load would have been too much for one person, but this was a small school and there really was not enough to keep two reference librarians busy all the time. In theory there had been two reference positions for quite some time, but in actuality there had only been a few months in the past couple of years where both positions had been filled at once.

After I left this job I saw the job posting for my replacement, and the position description had been completely rewritten and the title had been changed to Electronic Services & Instruction Librarian. I did feel somewhat vindicated by this. I think I was a good reference librarian, but that’s apparently not what my boss really wanted, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be an electronic services librarian. I do wish the Library Director had figured out what she’d wanted before she wasted a year of my life, though. I don’t really want to get into this, but I did suffer psychological and even stress-induced physical problems while working at this job. I used to start crying on Sunday nights because I knew I’d have to go back in just a few hours.

It may also be significant that I would not have qualified for full benefits at this job until my second year of employment. As it happens, a woman who was hired at this place a few months before I lost my job was herself unexpectedly fired after roughly a year. I didn’t know this woman especially well, but she seemed competent and my boss and two other evil coworkers appeared to like her personally a lot more than they did me.

As for the term “mobbing” itself, looking online it seems to have been borrowed from the field of animal behavior research. In that area, mobbing is when individuals of the same species work together to frighten or annoy a predator and drive it away. The term “mobbing” does make it clear that workplace mobbing is a group vs. an individual, while workplace bullying could refer to the actions of a single bully.


Also, I am outing myself as somewhat of a geek as I thought of electronic games where you pull one mob and all it’s buddies come to help.


I have no doubt being ‘‘mobbed’’ is very unpleasant, but claiming it causes PTSD? Lost some credibility right there.

Yes, what do psychologists and sociologists who studied this know about PTSD know, after all, it’s not like they are expert … oh wait, they are.

Sarcasm aside, the wikipedia article as first source points to the research by Leymann:

(The quote (3) refers to Leymans webpage )

Who made you the judge of who is allowed to have PTSD?

The research on this subject (mostly conducted in Europe) indicates that workplace mobbing can and does lead to PTSD in many cases. See for instance this research article abstract on PubMed, Does mobbing cause posttraumatic stress disorder? Impact of coping and personality. The authors’ conclusion is “Posttraumatic stress disorder subsequent to mobbing can occur frequently. PTSD therefore should be specifically considered in routine care.”