Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bullies: Out of the schoolyard and into the workplace

Bullies are no longer relegated to playgrounds, schoolyards, high school locker rooms, or hallways. In fact, bullies have graduated and taken their behaviors to higher levels. Workplace bullying, or “mobbing” as it is sometimes referred to, is a growing concern for employees and employers alike. Mobbing is recognized as a serious workplace phenomenon internationally as well as in the United States.

What constitutes mobbing? According to social psychologist Dr. Ruth Namie, mobbing is defined as "the repeated mistreatment of one employee targeted by one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation and sabotage of performance.” Within the context of the workplace, mobbing poses new and unique legal issues for employers and threatens to overtake sexual harassment as the workplace cause de jour. Several states, including California and Oregon, have undertaken legislation or other administrative action to address workplace mobbing:

  • Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality Anti-Mobbing Policy No. 50.110 defines mobbing as “intentional verbal or non-verbal conduct by one or more individuals against another individual over a period of time, that continuously and systematically: Intimidates, shows hostility, threatens, offends, humiliates, or insults any co-worker; or Interferes with a co-worker's performance; or Has an adverse impact on a co-worker's mental or physical well-being; or otherwise adversely affects a co-worker”.

  • California addresses workplace bullying within the context of its Abusive Workplace legislation (Assembly Bill No. 1582 2003-04). The bill defines Abusive Conduct’’ as “conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include, but is not limited to, repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance”.

According to California legislators, somewhere between 16 and 21% of employees have been victimized by health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment. Moreover, they find that this behavior is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment alone. What does this mean? Certainly, employers must put mobbing on their radar screen. Human Resource directors are well advised to review their hostile workplace policies to ensure that bullying is addressed and that proactive remedies are in place. Most importantly, Human Resource Assistants and company managers should be made aware of the signs of workplace bullying and the proper methods for addressing same. Additionally, companies should consider developing an anonymous tip-line, such as ChooseToCare ( , that is administered by a third party. In most cases, employees other than those directly involved in the harassment, have information to share but no way to do so anonymously.

Companies need to be ahead of the curve on this one says Bill Dolphin, Asset Control’s Vice President and Compliance Officer. Part of the liability companies face with mobbing complaints lies in the fact that managers often unwittingly participate in the problem. This occurs when the manager documents the decline in the “target” employee’s performance, often associated with bullying, through counseling’s, poor performance evaluations, or other corrective actions; all of which serves to aggravate the emotional or psychological stress experienced by the victim.

What remedies are available to the targets of mobbing behavior? California’s legislation, for example, provides that am employee could seek compensation under the bill or through worker’s compensation – but not through both. Moreover, an EEOC remedy could be sought if the employee can show that the harassment occurred because of the employee’s race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, or sexual orientation. State level legislation, however, seeks to expand employee protection to cover harassment for just about any reason (appearance, weight, personal habits, political or social beliefs, etc.).

No aspect of the business community has been spared. Cases have occurred within college faculties, school districts, law firms, and corporations. People can be cruel. Anyone who went through school overweight, with braces on their teeth, having to wear glasses, or handicapped knows this. “That school yard behaviors such as physical and emotional isolation, rumor mongering, work sabotage, threatening and the like is alive and well in the workplace shouldn’t surprise anyone”, says Dolphin. Yet, many employers are so focused on the more traditional forms of discrimination, like sexual harassment and EEOC related issues, that the signs that mobbing behavior may be occurring in their workplace escape them. “In fact, among the Human Resource professionals we spoke to, several had not heard of the term “mobbing” in the context of the workplace”, Dolphin points out.

As goes California, so goes the country. But workplace mobbing is not strictly a domestic phenomenon. Cases have arisen in Australia, the U.K., and Canada. In fact, awareness of this problem is gaining momentum worldwide.

For more information on mobbing in the workplace, please visit:

Mobbing – U.S.A. at
Mobbing.Ca at:

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