Workplace bullying and families of targets

Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured.

Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case. Here are two helpful pieces:

“Workplace Mobbing: Individual and Family Health Consequences”

Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry co-authored a 2007 piece, “Workplace Mobbing: Individual and Family Health Consequences,” Family Journal (2007) (abstract here; subscription necessary to access full article):

Family members of mobbing victims, of course, are significantly affected. . . . The victim’s preoccupation with the mobbing experience is likely to result in both obsessive preoccupation and general lack of communication or in a need to constantly talk about the mobbing as if it were the only aspect of the victim’s life. …If the victim is forced out of a job, the resulting loss of income causes financial stresses and the ensuing strain of shame and humiliation of not being the provider he or she once was.

Depending on the circumstances of a mobbing victim’s expulsion from the workplace, questions about reemployability may surface, affecting the entire family in a profound way. The victim’s shame and humiliation may then come to encompass other members of the family. Marriages in which one spouse was a mobbing victim will be affected at every level of the relationship.

“The Fallout from Abusive Supervision: an Examination of Subordinates and Their Partners”

Dawn Carlson and Merideth Ferguson, with Pamela Perrewe and Dwayne Whitten co-authored this newly published study, “The Fallout from Abusive Supervision: an Examination of Subordinates and Their Partners,” Personnel Psychology (2011) (link here; subscription necessary to access pdf):

(O)ur first theoretical contribution is that abusive supervision contributes to the experience of work-to-family conflict and relationship tension. Further, abusive supervision works through work-to-family conflict to contribute to relationship tension. Thus, our research contributes to abusive supervision research in demonstrating that these stressful events do not just affect subordinates while at work but also contribute to the experienced strain of the subordinate and his or her partner….

…Our second theoretical contribution is that the negative experiences from abuse cross over into the family domain of the partner as well as the family domain of the subordinate via the tension in the marital relationship.

…Consistent with displaced aggression theory, the tension and strain manifested in the marital relationship and relating to abusive supervision may indicate a subordinate’s need to take out the day’s frustrations on someone besides the supervisor….

Welcomed research

For readers who have experienced workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, this research simply may be stating the obvious, and in somewhat subdued tones to boot. Indeed, the summarized findings of these studies cannot begin to capture the heartbreaking realities of individual stories that many targets and their family members can share.

Nevertheless, we need these studies to support the personal accounts. They help to validate our claim that workplace bullying has destructive ripple effects that extend well beyond its immediate targets.

16 responses

  1. As a target of a serial bullly, her willing mobbing minions, and the poor leaders who looked the other way while her plans to destroy me were willingly carried out, I can attest that the mobbing destroys you. It is all consuming. Thanks for the acknowledgement that you con’t stop talking about it. I believe this is due to the fact that it is all too uncomprehensible. How it was allowed to happen in the first place. It is not unlike being raped, only this is a rape of the soul and the mind, it is a symbolic murder of the target by the bully or mob. It is as if they hold up your destruction as proof that they are better than you they have the power and you are helpless against them because you are not good enough. The worst part is that the target is usually the most ethical, competent and worthy of the position they are being mobbed out of, and the bullies are threated by the targets accomplishments. The worst part is you do not understand what happens to the target unless it happens to you. Bullies need to be held accountable, this is a murder of the soul and it is crule and inhuman, it is workplace torture.

  2. The impact on families is huge, and there does need to be more attention to this impact. Almost every day, when thoughts flash back to the mobbing, or I am face to face with the dire consequences, I wonder if anyone considered or even cared about the monumental impact to my small daughter when they rendered me, a single mother, virtually unemployable. They’d likely sum it up to “collateral damage” I presume, and their pity would be on her having a “crazy” mother, rather than a crazy mob. I interviewed one woman who was mobbed at her country club, and eventually her children were bullied by the children of the mobbers which magnified her trauma even more. (An interesting story; and characteristic of mobbing in communities where social networks form around family and children.)

    In my case, the mobbing also began to target my family, and I wonder how common this is. When my employers escalated the attacks to include reporting me to Homeland Security, they also reported my ten year old daughter because she had suggested baking cookies for my boss. Because he was a diabetic, it was reported that “you don’t give cookies to a diabetic and expect something good to happen.” They also dug up information on the suicide of my brother, and included that in my file as evidence that I would be suicidal. Finally, they wrote that if I didn’t drop my suit, they would investigate my family — law abiding, good people. Has anyone else reading this post had similar experiences of families being intentionally targeted, or the target’s family used to characterize them negatively?

    Finally, mobbing in families is very common, and much less discussed. Family members mob and shun other family members, and the literature on shunning, scant as it is, focuses primarily on family while mobbing literature gives little attention to families. Any thoughts?

    • Your experience unfortunately brings into this another dimension — when the abusive behaviors themselves are directed at family members. I’ve seen this happen, and the situation I’m most familiar with involved bullying in what I’d call the puppet master variation rather than group mobbing. The intra-family consequences can be devastating and sometimes tragic.

  3. Dave
    You are so right and as you hve heard some of my story befoe i have not spoke much about the impact that my 12months out of work and job loss and severe bullying has effected my family.Fortunately my fiance has been very supportive, way beyond whatshe shoul have hd to tolerate and our relationship was new when my illness and job loss occured, so it put trendous stress on us and my family. I am lucky that our relationship survived. Everything you stated i experienced and it takes a toll on friends, family and everyone you are around because as you said it consumes the target to no end. Before this happened to me i would have never dreamed that a mature adult with 31 years experience in my trade would fall victim to this. But what happens is employers allow certain things to go on over a period of time and in my case it was way over the top at this community center in syracuse ny. The abuse and name calling and swearing in fron t of coworkers at me and threatening me , and stalking me daily and at home and on the phone and micromanaging everthing i did to the point that i needed her peermission to do anything and then she would not make herself available to me and she was setting me up. The list goes on and on. Never the less this type of abuse has to stop in the workplace and i am trying to get a national news station to take my story. Right now i am asking Dr. Drew to see if he would be interested in doing a segment to help bring this to a national level and get the word out to other employees that there is information and help out there. I hope he takes the story. I will let you know, i would want someone from the workplace bully institute there and the healthy new york workplace bill there to speak as well. I will wait and see. I think we need the exposure.

  4. As a target of bullying and mobbing, I have chosen not to divulge much of the impact on those nearest and dearest to me…those are their stories, not mine. I recognize the impacts described, I see the destructive ripples, I try to contain them as much as possible. The agony of witnessing the wider impacts exacerbates the direct effects on me personally.

    Part of my reluctance to disclose the full impact is the satisfaction I imagine my tormentors would derive from the knowledge. I believe they are more knowledgeable than to have been unaware of the influence of their actions given that they are mental health professionals.

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  6. I have been troubled for some time about the fact that this aspect of workplace bullying has recieved little research attention. In my experiences with bullied workers at least one person said that he was frightened because his work bullying made him want to go home and beat his wife and he wasn’t that kind of a person! I wonder how many cases of domestic violence are driven by workplace bullying either directly or indirectly with self medicating to ease the pain?

    • In all of my research on bullying in the workplace i have not read a sentance on domestic violence as a result. I am not saying it does not happen. Typically targets of severe workplace bullying are very angry and tend to withdraw into themselves simllar to the way a woman of domestic violence would. But i have not heard of a target going home and beating their spouse.What i have experienced and read about is that targets go home and are very withdrawn and act very similar to the way a person of domestic abuse would act.

      • I’m not so sure everyone becomes withdrawn; i certainly didn’t. And the man who said he wanted to go home and beat his wife shows that being targeted does provoke feelings of rage. I know that although I never became abusive, I was a nervous wreck and very short tempered at home. I also think many, but certainly not all, workplace shootings are tragic responses to mobbing when someone so stripped of power feels violence is their only recourse; Omar Thornton, the man who killed his co-workers in Connecticut comes to mind as a possible mobbing target who might otherwise not have killed (though we will never really know). It’s not a stretch to see how someone under pressure at work would act with rage at home. And many abused wives torment and abuse their children (though of course, most do not). Bullying and mobbing provoke such anger and powerlessness that it is quite conceivable the target acts in otherwise atypical ways, including domestic abuse.

      • Janice i agree and i would not be surprised at all. I think you are totally correct that shooting s in the work place are many times directly related abuse in the workplace and a result of how employees have been abused. I thnk sometimes employees as you said become powerless and suffer such a loss and have so much rage over being abused as they wee that they no other way other than to either harm themselves or go into the worklace and commit tragic crime. It is unfortunate that we live in a society where we still do not have a handle on how employers can treat thier employees outside of protected classes.

  7. I was the target of systemised institutionalised bullying and mobbing. It started when my line manager physically threatened and intimated me, I reported it to
    HR and it just got worse. I was subjected to racist emails, threats from secretaries, performance management for my “insolent eyes”. Fortunately I took legal advice early, taped all meetings and after the charade of the performance management had finished they tried to sack me. I threatened employment tribunal, they paid me a lot of money not to. However, five years later, I still feel consumed occasionally by it and still have a lot of rage. Would love some advice as unless you have been through it, you can’t understand

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