From bullying, to mobbing, to ouster: The story of Ann Curry

Ann Curry (photo: Wikipedia)

Ann Curry (photo: Wikipedia)

Certain work settings seem especially susceptible to vicious and petty workplace behaviors. The electronic media is one of them. If you’re looking for an example, the much publicized 2012 ouster of Ann Curry as co-host of NBC’s “Today” morning talk show offers lots of food for thought.

In a detailed piece for the New York Times Magazine, Brian Stelter plumbs the depths of the behaviors and organizational culture that helped to bring her down:

…Curry felt that the boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at “Today” undermined her from the start, and she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture. The growing indifference of Matt Lauer, her co-host, had hurt the most, but there was also just a general meanness on set. At one point, the executive producer, Jim Bell, commissioned a blooper reel of Curry’s worst on-air mistakes. Another time, according to a producer, Bell called staff members into his office to show a gaffe she made during a cross-talk with a local station. (Bell denies both incidents.) Then several boxes of Curry’s belongings ended up in a coat closet, as if she had already been booted off the premises. One staff person recalled that “a lot of time in the control room was spent making fun of Ann’s outfit choices or just generally messing with her.” On one memorable spring morning, Curry wore a bright yellow dress that spawned snarky comparisons to Big Bird. The staff person said that others in the control room, which included 14 men and 3 women, according to my head count one morning, Photoshopped a picture of Big Bird next to Curry and asked co-workers to vote on “Who wore it best?”

Then-executive producer Jim Bell appears to be the original catalyst for much of this. He labeled his effort to push out Curry as “Operation Bambi.”

Maureen Duffy on Curry and mobbing

Therapist and consultant Maureen Duffy, co-author with Len Sperry of the excellent Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012), sees the Curry situation as a workplace mobbing. In an insightful blog piece, she carefully parses the Stelter article and draws the inevitable conclusion that Curry was mobbed out of her job:

Whatever your personal opinions of Curry and her work, she was clearly mobbed out of her Today show job. Workplace mobbing is a process of humiliation and degradation of a targeted worker with the purpose of removing that worker from the workplace or at least from a particular unit of it. It is a dark side of organizational life, involves co-workers ganging up on the target, and includes management’s involvement through active participation in the mobbing or through failure to stop it once it becomes known to them.

Maureen cites these indicators of workplace mobbing that led to Curry’s downfall:

  • “Precipitating event or situation”
  • “Targeting of a worker for elimination and involvement of management or administration”
  • “Unethical communication about the target and series of negative acts”
  • “Isolation and exclusion of the target, more ganging up, and resulting escalation of mobbing”
  • “Elimination from the workplace”

“Bullying” vs. “puppet master” bullying vs. “mobbing”

Some readers may be curious about the use of labels “bullying” and “mobbing” to describe targeted workplace mistreatment. They are variations on a horrible theme, as I see it. Sometimes smaller-scale bullying can expand to mobbing, which may have been the case with Curry. For that reason, among others, I regard workplace mobbing as a form or subset of workplace bullying, but others passionately draw sharper lines between them.

In a blog piece last year, I attempted to distinguish between (1) standard-brand workplace bullying; (2) what I call “puppet master” bullying; and (3) genuine mobbing. Here’s how I characterized “puppet-master” bullying:

In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob.

However, what may originate as a form of bullying can transform into broader-scale mobbing:

…(G)enuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. …(R)egardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.

What appeared to start as an effort by producer Bell to bully Curry out of her co-host slot morphed into a toxic stew that went well beyond his machinations. Definitions and distinctions aside, the combination of Brian Stelter’s reporting and Maureen Duffy’s assessment has persuaded me that Ann Curry was the target of a full-blown mobbing by the time she left her job.

***

For more

Workplace mobbing situations often require careful study to understand. While even “typical” bullying scenarios can be difficult to unpack, mobbing involves multiple actors and sometimes rapidly shifting emotions and energies among them. In addition to the Duffy & Sperry book referenced above, please consider:

  • The superb body of work of University of Waterloo sociologist Kenneth Westhues remains a starting place for me in grasping these dynamics. Ken writes mostly about mobbing in the academic workplace, but his work applies to virtually all occupational contexts. I describe his writings in this blog post about bullying and mobbing in academe.
  • An earlier work on workplace mobbing, and still valuable, is Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz & Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (2002).

26 responses

  1. Excellent piece, David. Mobbing is extremely detrimental to the individual or group. As a researcher, we need to make that distinction between bullying, willing and unwilling participants of the bully (puppet master), and mobbing. However, even with this story, there is a main perpetrator who stirred the emotions to acquire willing participants.

    • Mobbing was something I had never heard of, I didnt even know the word let alone the meaning behind it ……. however my life was spun into turmoil, when a mass group placed grievances against me, a friend advised me that there was something called mobbing, and since that day, which is nearly 2 years ago, I have come to use the terminology and relate to it a lot …………. It is worrying that there is no help in this situation, but you are left to fight and stand alone……………… If I can help just one person going through this same/similar situation I will ………..

  2. Great piece. Unfortuantely, I’ve seen this behavior. It seems pretty clear that the Exec. Producer, Bell, played a pivotal role in creating a most negative atmosphere for Curry. I’m not a fan of hers or the the show, but no one deserves to be treated in such a way.

  3. Truly awful story. I happen to be a big fan of Ann Curry; I’ve always liked her on air presence. I’m wondering if those folks around her were jealous of Ann .. an emotion that so often sparks bullying and mobbing. It also sounds like there is a fair amount of sexism at work here, too. I hope she lands an awesome job where she is surrounded by amazing colleagues.

  4. I was also a fan of Ann Curry and a long time Today Show watcher. I immediately switched to GMA because of the way they treated her.

  5. Great story but very sad and unfortunate. Unfortunately, I can completely relate to these antics, as it sounds oh so familiar to what happened to me in my workplace. Hopefully sooner then later this type of behavior will be a thing of the past, and people will have to be held accountable for it.

  6. Does anyone know what Ann Curry is doing now? I am hoping she survived the ordeal. During that time I was attempting to stave off my offender, which seemed to be a career path in and of itself.

    Does anyone have any updates as to how she is doing now? I wonder if the publicity created any positive consciousness awareness around this issue.

  7. I was shocked and disappointed that Ann Curry Left. How painful it must have been to endure the trauma described. I am so disillusioned with Matt Lauer.

  8. It was hard for me to read this. I went through a similar situation and it took years to recover. I hate that this happened to Ann Curry and on such a public level. Maybe bringing awareness to this issue will help others.

    • I was not only bullied but mobbed by co-workers at NBC who were recruited by the manager to track all comments and actions on my part. All of the things mentioned in this article were played on me..isolation, the whole dept. ganged up against me, assassination my reputation, friends of co-workers staring at me as if I was from Mars, whoever was friendly to me seems was talked out of it, was deeply humiliated and tricked to get in trouble by female co-workers who were the worse. Seems everyone breathed a culture of fear, fear of losing their job, fear of being the next person to be picked on, fear of being called into the office just like in high school for petty reasons and glorifying a manager who bragged about firing anyone without thinking twice about it. Someone there NBC stood for Nepotism Before Competence and that was right. They have idiot , dictator like managers running that place, saying hello to your face and ripping you apart as soon as you turn your back. NBC is the place where nightmares come from.

      • I am exactly like you – 2 years of bullying! The first thing my supervisor said when I met her that the doctors did not like because her other job was firing them (which was a lie). Then, I broke my wrist last summer and wrote an e-mail to co-workers and never received one reply. No one talks to me, except the other 6 ex-coworkers who were bullied/quit before me. I got along with everyone for 24 years), trained, listened to their problems, etc., and believe they are mobbing me too. My husband said the workers who still have a job are like “sheep” – scared to talk to me or speak up. My reputation has been tainted. I am on unemployment and cannot get a job. I was targeted/mobbed by my supervisor and 4 upper management above her (al women). They needed to eliminate me after I filed with the EEOC/ERD. At first they called me (after ignoring me) and were nice, but then it got very ugly; more lies on their part – they have a company lawyer. I also have PTSD (chronic). Everyone is different in how long it takes to hopefully get over it. During this horrid (unbelievable) period of my life, my anti-anxiety medication needed to be increased, depression medication changed, I had more migraines, and could not concentrate as well (I have ADHD). I lost 16 pounds. Now, I have no health insurance, had to cash in 401K, and might have to cancel life insurance. Constantly use coupons, received energy assistance, but not take food stamps (so much paperwork). I shop at thrift stores. We need a different car soon. I also experienced exclusion from things I should have been told and others knew about the job. I was denied a keyboard for 8 months (like the one I originally had). My self-esteem is at its lowest ever. I see a counselor through a program where you pay what you can afford; that is helping. I have to see my psychiatrist or no medications (pay cash). My husband is working part-time because he is partially retired. I sell on E-Bay. I try to save whenever I can. Soon,there will have to be a book on “How to Survive and Save Money after being Bullied at Work”. I’ve written to so many politicians to get the Healthy Workplace Bill passed, attended town meetings, – plus had anti-bully T-shirts made! Bullying should be crime. It is abusive and extremely unethical. Why do adults get away with bullying other adults and children are protected (which I am glad they are). It should be equal for any age. No one gets in trouble for work bullying. There is no “Nice” law. I also noticed that my bullies (all women) were large, tall, hairy, and very aggressive. I actually think the work “Bully” should be included in harassment and all other words used that are illegal in the workplace. Just add it in and we would not have to make another bill into a separate law for this. It affects the person the same – maybe worse. It changes your entire outlook on life. I never knew people this bad existed or would get enjoyment out of it. All I can say to others out there is to keep on doing whatever you can to get your state to pass the bill. It is funny to me how President Obama can quickly lower college loan rates and make it a law, but that this bill gets put on the burner and is more serious issue.

  9. It is so sad this has happened not only to Ann Curry, but to all of us. One good thing, is that she is a public figure and can spread the word. This may help the Healthy Workplace Bill get passed into law. I would love to have her support my EEOC/ERD Complaint. It is funny how the bullying is downplayed in the US, and that some lawyers need to understand what this really is. At least some of the European Countries were smart enough to pass the law in the 1990’s. You would think the US would be smarter to catch on and just pass the law. If children are protected by bullies, what about adults? If Obama’s wife could get this going, along with her passion for people eating correctly and exercising, she could help too. I feel that this subject is extremely important – it can change one’s whole life – the bully wins and goes on for the next target.

  10. I really like the idea of involving Michelle Obama. I wonder if there is some way in which we can reach out to her.

    In terms of Ann Curry coming forward and speaking about her treatment, has anyone read/viewed anything coming from Ann? I cannot seem to locate anything.

    The problem with being a victim of bullying, that person still needs to personally recover from the fiasco and find a way to become gainfully employed again.

    I work with a counselor at a local employment agency, and he vehemently suggests that I gloss over the firing so that it doesn’t become a sore subject for the prospective employer which, of course, makes sense.

    So, for me, the question becomes when can someone speak about the mistreatment and not risk more character denigration by the local community because it is still a very taboo topic.

    I live in a small community where everyone knows everyone else, so to speak, in terms of the human services sector. If I become active with this issue, I may very well risk being shunned by others.

    When I reached out to my state representative’s office last year, I was told that my story was the first incident that their office had heard of anyone experiencing bullying. It tends to be so hush hush in my county.

    • Thanks for your reply. I actually have a very similar situation to yours. I am seeing a counselor at Job Service too. I worked my job for 24 years. The mobbing is terrible – you lose co-workers who you thought were your friends. The sad part is that I loved everyone I worked with and I would make people laugh. They would be excited to see me and me them. I am going to a meeting to speak to our senator about the law. The other funny thing is that I spoke with a woman today whose sister is the CEO at a company owned by the company I worked for. She said she is going to tell her sister about this. This same woman said she even knows about bullying at work because she has to attend meetings about this. The word needs spreading – just have to do our best and hope more people will listen.

      • Would you share your thoughts about the outcome from this lady speaking to her sister goes? I am sure that all of us would love to believe that there is someone(s) somewhere who haven’t become completely apathetic with what targets go through.

        It is clear to me that there are an innumerable amount of targets throughout the work place industry that are enduring unspeakable suffering due to bullyies who cannot seem to muster up enough courage to take a look at themselves and grow, just a tad.

        David, do you have any thoughts about our contacting Michele Obama? The idea seems like a great idea. Not sure how to make that leap from state-initiated bills that are proposed to getting federal attention.

        However, contacting Michele Obama with the more human side of the suffering surely does seem like a great idea.

      • Generally speaking, I hope that we can raise concerns about workplace bullying to anyone in a position of influence who will listen. I’m personally agnostic on the question of whether it’s Michelle Obama or any other visible figure in public life.

      • Personally, I think the option of contacting Mrs. Obama is a worthy endeavor.

        Could we come up with a plan on how to approach this option?

  11. Good information! Thank You. Anny Curry was definitely a Target of Mobbing.

    The person to credit with defining Mobbing is Dr. Heinz Leymann, a German psychiatrist & scientist who lived & worked in Sweden. His work, first published in 1984 even led to ‘Mobbing Clinic’ in Sweden. Dr. Leymann made the definitive comparison to bullying & was the 1st to set the parameters of Mobbing; including that THE MOST important aspect of Mobbing is the FREQUENCY (@ least 3 times a week) & LENGTH (@ least 6 months) of this sort of hostile behavior. Dr. Leymann’s work can be read in detail here: http://www.leymann.se/English/frame.html
    Mobbing is not being reprimanded or even yelled at, or being excluded from a group lunch. As it has been noted above, Mobbing is a concerted, organized, intentional, aggressive, hostile behavior committed many times a week for a significant period of time, by a few against an individual who they feel threatens their position. Their aim is to eliminate this threat (Target) & because their acts are subtle, covert & their accusations seemingly come from several ‘sides’, it is almost impossible to come out of with your reputation & credibility (or sanity) in place.
    For almost 2 years I was the Target of Mobbing by 2 co-workers & my supervisor. I lost my job, my retirement, my self esteem, my faith in others & my credibility. More than 20 months later & dozens upon dozens of applications, I am still unable to secure another job. Every single aspect of my life has been devastated: physically, emotionally, psychologically, as a parent, as a friend, & I have no doubt if I was able to seek (& pay for) mental health care, I would be diagnosed with the PTSD Dr. Leymann diagnosed in the majority of his patients.
    While I worry (as a Democrat) that as a nation we are becoming too dependent on our government, I do pray that some day American workers are as legally protected from Mobbing as we are from other workplace issues. I only hope that day does not come as a result of a violent act committed by someone who feels they have no other option.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.

  12. I recently recall viewing a short news clip that Ann Curry presented on one of the news shows about the Syrian children being exposed to violent horrors of the civil war there. Apparently, she had been covering some of that story first hand in Syria.

    When I watched her speak I saw a passionate spark in her reporting of the topic. I thought to myself that it appears as though this lady has found a way to rebound from the damage that has been inflicted upon her, at least enough to show her passion for the issues that ignitte a righteous indignation in her.

    As for me it has been five and half months since I was terminated. Because my bully could not come up with a justifiable reason to have me fired, she fabricated an outright lie that the CEO-enabler/co-conspirator/wet noodle-used to fire me without ever asking me about the issue.

    Moreover, it took him twelve working days from when my buly said the alleged incident occurred-insubordination- before he fired me. I was shocked as I was not aware that there was any issue pending.

    I am now on unemployment (finally-she fought to deny me that, as well, with no evidence to support it) and I am concerned about being able to re-enter the workforce in the field I work in which is human services in the small community that I reside in, as my bully is infamous for stoking the rumor mill and denigrating her targets in a back-handed way.

    I, too, have developed PTSD from this experience and I haven’t found a way ot afford the treatment I would benefit from, asa yet.. I have, also, developed some medical issues which I pray to God are not too serious. I have to see a specialist this week due to a spot (something) that appeared on a Cat Scan.

    I agree that mobbing and bullying needs to be illegal. In the earlier years-my bullying spanned a nine year timeframe-my supervisor attempted to enlist others in an effort to mob me. However, she lost support for it partly due to other employees’ lack of interest in engaging with her, as well as my vehemently addressing the issue. At least that it how I perceived it to be.

    I always look for and appreciate any feedback any of us has to share on this blog in terms of one’s recovery from this kind of horrific injustice.

    • A counselor told me the way you can help yourself recover from this horrific treatment is to use “mindlessness”. It sounds weird, but you have to get to the point where you turn into the observer of your situation. For example, something in your past that you are able to talk about and not get upset, kind of like you are looking at it instead of being in it. Does that make sense? I am trying that, but each person takes their own time. The longer you were bullied, it could take longer. If you get a job with “normal” people, you can get your mind off of it. I have not found a job yet. My counselor told me to find a more simple job first. The PTSD from bullying can be called Chronic PTSD. There is a piece written about this from, I believe, England. Many European Countries have had the Healthy Workplace bill since the 1990s. I am trying to keep myself busy with crafts – but it is difficult to get this off your mind. I had “No Bully” T-shirts made for friends and family (over 20) from a site call Vista Printing. These blogs also help just by getting it off your chest. I am getting slowly better, but I reported to the EEOC/ERD and I think once that is over, it will help too. My counselor, who is a Nun, said that those who did the bullying will, “Have their day.” Only an evil, sick-minded, person can enjoy taking on this role.

  13. I do appreciate your feedback, Gem, thank you.

    There are days when I can find a sense of humor over all that has occurred. A previous co-worker-who was also brutally fired -and I find ways to identify and share our experience in ways that bring us laughter.

    And, then, there are those days when I feel my sense of righteous indignation flare up, due to the harm that has been visited upon me. I am not sure how to artfully move forward and apply for those jobs that I am most interested in and still truthfully reframe my resume so that it reflects my inner strengths, given the rumor mill that runs deep and wide within the small community I reside.

    i can be rest assured that this bully has invested every effort possible to frame our experience with one another in such a way as to make her look squeaky clean so as to distract folks from the toxic nature of her shadow side.

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