Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Virulent instances of workplace mistreatment often involve an eliminationist intention on the part of the chief aggressor(s). Two years ago I wrote that the eliminationist instinct may express itself in several ways, including workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors. It often reflects a desire not only to eliminate an employee from the workplace, but also to undermine the individual’s livelihood and health even after departure from the organization.

This year I’ve also been thinking a lot about the roles of lead aggressors vs. roles played by other organizational actors in work abuse situations, especially from a systems theory perspective that examines how human roles and interactions culminate in systems that produce certain results. In May I wrote:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Recently I also speculated whether work abusers represented a “few bad apples” or a terribly bad harvest, suggesting that “(b)ad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations.”

So here are my questions for today: When does a whole system basically internalize the eliminationist mindset? When does the organizational toxicity metastasize to the point where most, if not all, relevant actors are now emotionally committed to eliminating the target? What factors and influences create this dynamic, which at this juncture is usually a full-on mobbing? As I wrote in April, such abuse can take on a multi-directional, blitzkrieg approach designed “to disorient, confuse, frighten, weaken, and ultimately disable the target.” 

These thoughts hopefully further the conversation about individual vs. organizational accountability for bullying and mobbing behaviors. As I suggested in February, it really should be about both. In the worst situations that I’ve become familiar with, the net must be cast widely in terms of identifying responsible players, typically implicating the organization as a whole.

19 responses

  1. I was recently a victim of workplace violence and forced into early retirement.
    I was repeatedly sexual assaulted and was physical assaulted and was hurt in the process.
    All my complaints to upper management were swept under the rug. I even had witnesses and proof that this happened. I made a police report and went to the District Attorney and again was swept under the rug.
    I worked for a State Agency. Going through this whole process of trying to get justice, I found out you have no rights and there is absolutely no justice for workplace violence.
    My time sheet was even being falsified, and I was not getting paid for being there, again I have proof. Went to the labor board only to receive a letter that states because I am a State employee they cannot help me with the time sheet fraud.
    So being threatened by certain employees and not being paid for being at work with no justice, I had no choice but to go into early retirement.
    I still want to fight to get justice but I have used all resources in trying to get help that I have just about given up.
    My health has really declined due to this uneccessary behavior.
    Filed for Workers Comp. but have been having problems with the attorney as he has violated ethics. Is it possible that this state agency could be sabataging my Workers Comp.?
    I keep thinking I am in a bad dream as this happens in the movies, but this is actually reality.

    • I hate you have gone through all of the sexual assaults and minimization. You may never get justice (speaking from experience). but the best you must do is to take care of yourself (again, speaking from experience). You deserve better.

      • Thanks for your reply. The hardest part for anyone to go through is to heal from being so traumatized.
        It just makes me angry how these organizations can treat their employees and literally get away with it.
        I refuse to be a victim anymore and am trying to move forward.
        Thanks for listening.

  2. I believe the system parallels scapegoating within a family system. There are whisper campaigns, gaslighting, blaming, shaming, denial, projection, organizational silence…. Organizational silence is an interesting aspect, when the entire group decides not to say anything about what is clearly morally wrong. I just recently commented on your April post, so yes, this happened to me, the Blitzgrieg (jsp) attack at work. Yet what I found out was that I had been scapegoated within my family system, which exposed me to being a target in other areas of my life as an adult. Glenys Sherwood writes some really great articles about this, and there is also a lot of great info online. I hadn’t realized my role until I started researching bullying in the workplace. The interesting part is how humans can so easily identify who these highly sensitive and vulnerable people are, and play against this. It’s evil. I believe that’s when the sociopaths come in, and there are also some very interesting articles, some scholarly, about sociopaths in the workplace. This is a very real aspect of dysfunctional workplace environments.

  3. David, I don’t really have an answer to your question other than to suggest that the tipping point might only be when an external body with regulatory power gets involved, ie a third party with no emotional or political investment in upholding the dominant narrative in the workplace. But it struck me in reading your post how much of workplace conduct is based on unwritten expectations of “normal” behaviour (e.g. rationality and fairness) and how difficult it can be to counteract behaviour that violates those norms, because policies and procedures are inherently based on the assumption that those norms are present.

  4. I think that we must consider workplace bullying and mobbing a form of corruption and is therefore an agency problem involving the misuse – illegal use – of otherwise legal authority. Toxic work environments are higher risk and less productive. Most enterprises have policy against bad behaviors. So obviously those with authoritative power allow themselves to breach their agency responsibilities. Bullying should be illegal. Internal governance processes are always in breach in corrupt enterprises. So, there needs to be third party oversight. It is this lack of oversight and the misguided idea that corrupt agents will play by the rules. Did Wells Fargo compliance help or hurt those who complained? Why is HR allowed to break policy and aid in the elimination of otherwise competent and productive employees? It is easy. The corrupt protect themselves. They reward followers who aid them. I am near certain that my former employer bribed, produced false documentation, and completely abbrogated their agency and social responsibility. But, the corrupt have all the money and resources with no actual accountability. Most toxic workplaces would likely uncover a plethora of damaging secrets implicating top management. Of course it will be suppressed.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this, it follows closet what I went through when I was working. For years every time I said something I was told I was imaging things, I was crazy, maybe I should get some “help”. Mobbing is very real. I left my profession 11 years ago and I am still harassed and stalked.

  6. Hi, I follow your posts with much interest, being a victim. that I is by the by, no one really seems to take an interest in my hard luck story; I am doing my best to understand it on my own terms. To this end, I wonder what you think of these new outlines against corruption in South Australia (to me corruption reads as bullying, reported to this body concerned but ignored despite the bullying coming from university staff, police forces, and other public officials such as the ombudsman). Ie, do other people have better chances of being listened to than me? With thanks, Fiona https://www.legislation.sa.gov.au/LZ/C/A/INDEPENDENT%20COMMISSIONER%20AGAINST%20CORRUPTION%20ACT%202012/CURRENT/2012.52.UN.PDF

  7. Some things that might result in co-workers being more inclined to participate (or ‘stand by and watch’) in ousting someone are: fear of being targeted if they don’t join in, wanting to eliminate a person (situation) that reminds them of their own issues (with employer or with co-worker), feeling the actions are justified (based on ‘authority knows more/best’),.and using the co-worker to target aggression that may or may not have anything to do with him or her. I think it’s a combination of factors the systems enables, promotes, and/or allows and what is happening internally with the employee.

    • I agree with your post. If a co worker does not join in and harass the target, they are scared they will be targeted as well. With my experience some of these co workers get promoted for their involvement in the harassment.
      I worked for a large state agency (Caltrans) who made harassment a game. What I am trying to come to grips with, is how they can get away with discrimination, assaults, retaliation etc. with no justice to put a stop to it. I agree these people are psychopaths who do not care for people and try their best no matter how extreme it is to ruin their lives.
      I have worked for a lot of state agencies and have never come across anything like this until I worked for Caltrans.

  8. David, first I would like to thank you and all of your colleagues who have taken on the issue of mobbing in the workplace. It is not talked about enough and there is not enough awareness where there should be, as the impacts of mobbing on the target can literally be permanently life altering in such negative ways, lose of livelihood, social and emotional support, financial stability, damage to reputation, and it goes on and on. Because society seems to be increasingly apathetic and disconnected I think this problem will persist before it gets better. Awareness is the first step. I did not know this level of bullying existed until it happened to me., I was not aware of the term mobbing and the 5 phases, etc until my experience and subsequent research to understand what was happening to me. I am experiencing exactly what you have written about so eloquently in your post. I was mobbed to the point of having to resign from my position in the government sector as it increasingly became clear that a target had been placed on my back and my emotional and physical well-being began to be affected. I saw myself being isolated from co-workers, being demeaned, mocked/mimicked, shut out, set up for failure, etc. A place where I was once well liked socially I was being ignored/avoided out of nowhere, even had people roll their eyes at me, people that I never really had much of a relationship with or even had a bad relationship or conflict with. Though not easy, as I have 99% of the time had another job lined up prior to me quitting a job, I came to the conclusion that I would be better off leaving the agency because I could not take the abuse anymore and I knew that I am a skilled and capable worker who should not have to deal with this and would be an asset somewhere else if I was no longer “wanted” there, and I felt if this agency was OK with doing this to its employees, because it became very clear that management was most likely implicit in this, this was probably a place that I did not want to work at anymore anyway because it did not reflect my values. I would never participate in something of this nature. After resigning I reported the harassment to a state agency, shortly afterwards I began to be harassed in my community and in my daily life in general anywhere I went, through my research of mobbing and trying to understand what that was and begin my recovery and trying to understand the subsequent abuse I was experiencing after resigning from the job, I stumbled upon the term organized or gang stalking or community stalking and realized that all the months I was experiencing strange things after resigning and reporting the harassment was something called organized gang stalking which I believe was instigated in an effort to discredit my account of what happened, retaliate, humiliate, damage my reputation, and intimidate me into silence. I agree with your post, entire organizations and affiliates or these organizations can be responsible for the mobbing and this is the worst kind because they are trying to give the target little to no options to come to a resolution because they are relentless and trying to CYA at the expense of a human being who did not do anything wrong. Instead of weeding out the perpetrators it’s more savvy for the organizations reputation to destroy the target and sweep them under the rug as if they were trash.This cannot be tolerated. This I feel is particularly damaging when working in the government sector because resources may be used to not only carry out the mobbing, but carry out more insidious acts and violations of human rights and privacy to just make the target go away, i’m sure it’s easier to hang everything on the one person instead of owning up the failings and essentially corruption in these organizations.

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