Workplace bullying: when you are the office punchbag

Mar 19, 2020

7 mins

Workplace bullying: when you are the office punchbag
Elsa Andron

Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne

You’re probably aware of workplace bullying, but have you ever heard of “mobbing”? This is a form of bullying that involves something many people face in their professional lives: physical or psychological harassment.

As the name suggests, “mobbing” is something more than harassment. The harmful or violent behaviour is carried out by more than one person, meaning that the victim is systematically targeted. Or it may be that colleagues simply go along with the bad behaviour of a manager and do nothing to help the person being targeted. What are the consequences and outcomes for those who find themselves to be the office scapegoat or punchbag? Is it considered a form of harassment?

Defining “mobbing”

It is difficult to find a clear and unanimous definition of mobbing, partly because the overall concept of harassment covers such a range of separate issues. The specific idea of mobbing first appeared in 1996, when German-Swedish work psychology professor Heinz Leymann defined it as a form of moral harassment based in the workplace. In his work, he highlighted the different behaviours that he believed to constitute mobbing. He felt that it did not fall under typical patterns of interpersonal conflict or differences in opinion, but rather that it was a systematic form of harassment. Taken independently of each other, the behaviours described may sometimes appear innocuous, but taken together, they pose a significant threat to the psychological and even physical wellbeing of the victim when repeated over an extended period of at least six months.

In her book, Moral Harassment: The Perverse Violence in Daily Life, published in 1998, French psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen again brings the phenomenon to light. Her work describes the types of harmful behaviours that she believes constitute moral harassment. But it’s still difficult to define the phenomenon; according to other sources on the subject, mobbing is characterised by acts of aggression from a group of people.

Melissa, 26, was targeted by her superior at work, but this wasn’t always the case. “At first, my manager complimented me a lot on my work, but one of my colleagues always caught hell. My boss made fun of her, put immense pressure on her, took over all her work and took away her paid holidays. She’d even tell her things like, ‘I don’t see why you deserve a four-day weekend when I don’t have one.’ My colleague left during her trial period as she couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s when I took on more responsibility. It was kind of a honeymoon period for a year or so because I was doing both roles, my own and the one left vacant by my colleague. It was going smoothly with my manager and she even involved me in the recruitment of my colleague’s replacement. But when the new person arrived, the winds changed, and my manager began to target me,” said Melissa.

Five behaviours that constitute “mobbing,” according to Heinz Leymann

Leymann classified these behaviours in five categories:

1. Those affecting expression and communication

Through petty or even aggressive behaviour, the harasser diminishes and reduces the victim’s ability to communicate effectively in the workplace. This can include not saying hello, preventing the person from speaking out by systematically cutting across them, shouting at them or withholding information that could harm them at work, such as not warning them that a meeting has been changed. Melissa’s manager went so far as to tell a service provider in front of Melissa and her colleague, “My girls will only say hello if I allow them to do so, because I’m the boss.”

2. Those affecting social interactions and reputation

Repeated and systematic acts are intended to damage the reputation of the person attacked in order to exclude or isolate them from the group. For example, the aggressor may refuse contact with the person, ignore them, exclude them from team time such as lunches or drinks after work, publicly humiliate them under the guise of a joke, spread rumours about them, or make other hurtful or insulting remarks.

Melissa said, “My manager started by making racist jokes about my background and comments on my weight. The fat-shaming remarks started off being about my breasts, and then she was always talking about my weight. Then it went further: she told me that I was offended for no good reason and she continued to make remarks about my bad temper and lack of humour. When I asked her to stop, she said: ‘I’m going to make you a better person, starting now.’ The next day, she came in with what she called a ‘sin jar’ and said to me: ‘From now on, every time you get upset you’ll have to put money in the pot.’” Melissa was initially very much against this idea, but under pressure from her boss and other people in the office, she eventually accepted it and began to regularly put money in the jar.

3. Those targeting professional standing and quality of life

These actions aim to attack the person’s self-confidence at work by questioning their abilities and skills. The aggressor will, for example, ask the victim to perform absurd tasks that are not part of their job, criticise the quality of their work without valid reasons, and keep them away from important and strategic tasks.

“My boss then started to pull me up on the fact that I wasn’t greeting people properly and that I was doing my job badly. But when I asked her what was wrong with how I was doing my job, I realised that she was not able to give me any valid reasons or ways to improve myself. Then one morning, she came in and told me we had a big emergency. So, I sat next to her at her workstation so we could discuss it. That’s when she showed me an email that had been sent to us the day before. It was nothing special. I had already read it and I was going to answer it before her arrival. My boss then told me that she was going to dictate the answer that I should send. She then began to dictate to me, word for word, the email that I had to write, as if I were a child and I could not do it alone. She even finished up by asking me ‘Can you manage this?’”

4. Those targeting physical health

These can involve threats to the health or even the life of the victim. All these hostile behaviours can be repeated daily. The victim may not detect the negative intent of the behaviours at first. Understanding what’s really going on often only comes later.

5. Harassment, bullying and mobbing: what are the consequences for the victim?

The consequences for the victim can be serious — and with good reason. These behaviours are attacks that are intended to affect the person’s personal integrity, self-esteem, self-confidence and dignity.

Victims can be left feeling alone and constantly questioning themselves. They can find themselves with a strong inferiority complex and a sense of shame that can be significant enough to prevent them from asking for help.

Melissa said, “At first, I didn’t tell anyone because I thought what I was going through was normal and, above all, that I was the one causing the trouble and that the problem came from me. But one day I exploded and my therapist, with whom I had started therapy unrelated to what was going on at work, asked me ‘If you told the company doctor everything that you’ve been going through, what do you think he would tell you?’ This intervention opened my eyes to what I had been suffering and allowed me to define what was happening: I was being manipulated. I had come to believe everything that my boss had been telling me every day.”

As we can see with Melissa’s story, it is not always easy to notice the harmful behaviours that constitute harassment. It can not only be difficult to admit that it is happening to you, but to do something about it. Having said that, if you are a victim, you do have tools and resources available to you.

I think I’m being bullied, harassed or mobbed, what can I do?

It is worth remembering that all companies have a duty to protect the physical and mental health of all their employees. It is, therefore, their responsibility to ensure that the acts constituting harassment do not continue without consequences for the perpetrator. If you are a victim of harassment at work, you are protected by law, whether you are an employee, an intern or an apprentice.

If you think you are being bullied, don’t suffer alone in silence. It is important that you talk to a professional or someone you trust. This can help to make you aware that these actions are not normal or justified. If you are considering taking further action, you will need to start building a case to demonstrate proof of the actions of those involved. Keep written records that document the harmful actions you experience and that also demonstrate the reality of the situation to your HR manager and, potentially, in a legal forum such as an employment tribunal. You can also turn to colleagues who may have witnessed inappropriate exchanges and behaviours: they can potentially testify on your behalf and support your arguments.

Other people and services that can be of help:

  • Your boss, unless they are the perpetrator
  • Your HR director or manager can help you find solutions, organise mediation or take action against your aggressor
  • Staff or union representatives
  • Organisations such as ACAS and Citizen’s Advice or a lawyer specialising in employment law
  • Your company doctor or other health professional assigned to your organisation
  • A psychologist or therapist.

For Melissa, understanding and becoming fully aware of what was happening made the atmosphere at work unbearable for her. Eventually, one day she blew up and went home early. When she came back to the office, she informed her HR department of what had been going on. “Nothing happened and my manager is still the same with me. Admittedly, she speaks to me less, but there have been no consequences for her. I’m afraid of what comes next. I’m worried my company has a better lawyer and I’m afraid that I can’t bear to go through the whole process. I’m so scared. I’ve been going through this for two years, but I know things could get even worse.” Melissa lives in fear and is seriously thinking about leaving her company. So far, no legal proceedings have been launched.

In the UK, bullying and harassment at work is covered by the Equality Act 2010, and in certain serious circumstances, the employment tribunal system can become involved in resolving the issues.

If you’re experiencing any type of bullying, harassment or mobbing in your workplace, don’t suffer in silence. It is important to realise that what you are going through is not normal and it’s not your fault! Talk about it with those around you and feel free to ask your loved ones and professionals to help you through this very difficult situation. Then take action.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: WTTJ

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