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Workplace Mobbing
in Academe


K. Westhues Homepage

Ten Choices in the Study

of Workplace Mobbing or Bullying

In memory of Heinz Leymann (1932-1999) and Tim Field (1952-2006)

Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada

Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference on Workplace Bullying
Trinity College, Dublin, 15-17 June 2006

Sections of the paper
Introduction (immediately below)
Preliminary suggestion
1. Which label to use
2. What is this harm like?
3. Anonymity vs. naming names.
4. Target's perceptions vs. verifiable facts
5. The informal phase vs. post-incident formal sanctions
6. Should the definition of the phenomenon include consequences?
7. Motives vs. behaviours
8. Learned behaviour vs. innate impulses
9. Toward which remedies does the researcher tilt?
10. Which preventive strategies are favoured?

Over the past quarter-century, interest has burgeoned in a strange, nonviolent kind of aggression against capable employees in ostensibly rational workplaces: a barrage from managers and/or workmates of hostile communications unattributable to poor work performance but so severe as to sabotage the target's working life. Outcomes include dismissal, quit, transfer, retirement, physical or mental breakdown, suicide, and rarely, “going postal.”

Heinz Leymann and Tim Field were pioneers in what has become a worldwide campaign to understand, remedy and prevent this distinctly social threat to organizational effectiveness, workers’ health and safety, indeed civilized life. They called the problem by different names. As between mobbing and bullying, Leymann deliberately chose the former, Field the latter. These different names presaged the many related differences in conceptualization, theoretical foundation, measures, research methods, remedies, and preventive strategies apparent in the field today.

Nothing illustrates this variety of viewpoints so well as the wildly diverse estimates of the incidence of the kind of aggression at issue. At the low end, Leymann (1992) said 3.5 percent of Swedish workers were mobbed sometime during their careers, the same estimated incidence on which an Australian study of workplace bullying in 2002 was based, and the same one I usually cite. The 2001 Irish survey found that 7 percent of workers had been bullied. Namie and others estimate that 17 percent of US workers are bullied. Matsui reported last year that 50 percent of Ontario secondary school teachers are bullied. CNN reported in 2004 that two thirds of British workers admit to having been bullied. A British newspaper quotes an 11-year-old saying, "Everybody is bullied once in their lives even teachers and it shouldn't happen." The spread between 3.5 and 100 percent suggests gross disparity in what different researchers have in mind.

This paper, addressed to fellow researchers in the worldwide campaign, identifies ten choices each of us makes in every project aimed at advancing knowledge in this area. My objective here is to help sort these choices out, make them more conscious and better informed, and uncover assumptions underlying them, thereby to speed the accumulation of a clear, empirically sound, truthful body of knowledge, the only kind that will lead to interventions and policies that actually alleviate harm.

I am pleased and grateful for the opportunity to enter these choices into discussion here at Trinity College. From the roster of participants in this conference, it is clear that most of you belong to a scholarly network different from the one I am part of. Yours is mainly European, mainly composed of psychologists, mainly founded on survey methods, and highly professional (in the sense of aiming for expert knowledge with clinical and policy applications). Generally, you prefer the term bullying. Stale Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, Cary Cooper, Mona O'Moore, and Andreas Liefooghe are among your leading researchers. The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology and the International Journal of Management and Decision-Making (see 2003) are important outlets for your work.

I have valued and respected your network's scholarship since encountering it firsthand in the persons of Michael Sheehan, Charlotte Rayner, and Jan Gregersen at a conference in California organized by psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie in 2000, as part of the international campaign they lead against workplace bullying. The Namies are at the centre of a network that is similar to and intersects with yours, though with a more grass-roots, pragmatist bent. In the latter respect, the Namies' network is more like the one centered on Linda Shallcross in Australia, and the network the indefatigable Tim Field put together through his website, bullyonline, between 1996 and 2005, in the tradition of Andrea Adams. I have the impression the latter network has been generally apart from yours, despite its UK location, on account of its more public character, its distance from the profession of psychology and from academe in general.

Amongst these varied and overlapping networks, the one I am part of is defined by choices and assumptions that differ in some ways from yours. We share with you, of course, respect for Leymann's and Field's respective legacies of insight and engagement. Yet the body of scholarship represented in the series of books on academic mobbing published through the Tribunal for Administrative Justice by the Edwin Mellen Press has a little different flavour than most of your scholarship. In his recent long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2006), John Gravois captured that flavour remarkably well. That we generally prefer the word mobbing as opposed to bullying is but the most obvious of the differences between your network and ours. Ours is eclectic in scholarly discipline. It is less professional and more political, less clinical and more pragmatist, less founded on survey methods and more on case studies and history. We all stand to gain by bringing differences like these to the surface of consciousness and discussion, so that our respective future investigations may have the benefit of scholarly cross-fertilization.

Preliminary Suggestion

A preliminary suggestion, for the sake of advancing knowledge in this area, is that every researcher write and publish reflexive accounts of how he or she got into this field, describing the specific cases that first evoked horror and puzzlement. Not just one account but successive ones as years pass and perspective broadens. This was Alvin Gouldner's advice, widely followed in the decades since his death (see, for instance, Liz Stanley's autobiographical statement). Such accounts would go far toward illuminating the different choices different researchers of workplace mobbing or bullying make in their research and would force each of us to acknowledge the effects of personal experience on our scholarship, enabling us to come closer to objectivity by abandoning the pretense of it.

To clarify this point, let me cite two newspaper stories of workplace horror, both of which quoted our colleague Jean Lynch (for whose work in organizing this conference we all are grateful). In a 2001 story in the Irish Examiner, a firefighter named Michael Shanley was found to have been systematically abused and belittled by his station officer. In a 2006 story in the Irish Independent, an employee of Penney's named Theresa Davey is alleged to have been ganged up on and tormented by five female co-workers, while management looked on. I would hypothesize that if a researcher's initial encounter with workplace horror is of the kind reported about the firefighter, the researcher is more likely to use the word bullying, while if the initial encounter is of the kind reported about the Penney's employee, the researcher is more likely to use the word mobbing.

Ten Choices

For each of the ten choices listed below, I first explain what it means and then offer a provocative (and certainly debateable) defense of the choice I have made in my own work.

1. Which label to use. No matter how often the words mobbing and bullying are said to be synonyms, they are not. They are alike in denoting aggression. Mobbing posits a collective, nonviolent source in a distinct episode. Bullying points to a single, physically threatening aggressor, sometimes aided by toadies, over an extended period of time. Mobbing implies a mob, a crowd of normal people who have temporarily lost their good sense. Bullying implies a bully, an abnormal person who is habitually cruel or overbearing toward weaker people. Mobbing highlights situation, the ganging up in a specific circumstance of ordinary people against someone. Bullying highlights character, the humiliation of someone by one or more psychologically disordered individuals.

These two words direct attention to related but different phenomena. In my own research, mainly on academic workplaces, I have found that professors use many techniques to gain advantage, apart from the quality of their teaching and scholarship. Bellowing and throwing tantrums — hallmarks of bullying — are uncommon techniques, because they tend not to work in a culture like academe, where norms are strict against physical aggression. Sycophancy, fawning, flirting, gossip, sneakiness, underhandedness, ridicule, chicanery, and the subtle scratching and stabbing of backs are more common because they work better. But to apply the word bullying to these latter behaviours is a stretch.

The workplace harm that fascinates me is the same as what fascinated Leymann: the coalescence of many people in a workplace, using many devious techniques, for putting a workmate down. I have found little evidence to support a characterization of the perpetrators of such aggression as bullies. They have looked to me like normally self-centred academics for whom mobbing a colleague is a handy escape from ambiguity and fear.

Anybody who takes seriously the rich literature on "fundamental attribution error" has to be exceedingly wary of calling anybody a bully: of demonizing or stigmatizing anybody without compelling evidence. Tim Field was acutely aware of how hard it can be to decide who the real bully is. I would go a step further and avoid the word, along with similar personal characterizations. The cutting of bonds of human solidarity is the problem we seek to identify and remedy. Name-calling severs bonds. In my research on mobbing, armed with a checklist of indicators, I am able to identify instances of this organizational pathology without calling anybody's character into question or impugning motives, even as I point out, often to angry denials, "In this instance, you collectively screwed up."

2. What is this harm like? One clue to how a researcher conceives of the harm called bullying or mobbing is which other harms he or she considers it similar or related to. Gary Namie has called it "escalated incivility" and cited David Yamada's description of it as like sexual or racial harassment, but "status-blind." Common Spanish (acoso laboral) and French (harcèlement moral) echo the same conception. Lawyer Gabrielle Friedman has lamented that "mobbing seems to have drowned out the law of sexual harassment in Europe...." True to what Einarsen has called the American tradition, Davenport et al. subtitled the first US book on mobbing, "Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace." Related terms include "emotional violence," Wyatt and Hare's "work abuse," and Leymann's memorable phrase, "psychoterror in the workplace."

All these allusions hold insight, but there are others. The body of work with which I am associated sees workplace mobbing as generically similar to scapegoating, especially as René Girard has analyzed it. Similar also to witch hunts, as depicted, say, in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Similar also to those cases of wrongful conviction wherein police, prosecutors, judge and jury fall prey to a collective delusion of the guilt of the accused, when the evidence shows no such thing (see injusticebusters). In insightful work as yet unpublished, Stanley R. Barrett has compared workplace mobbing to blood feuds in traditional societies. An exciting moment for me last spring was the discovery of the literature on sham peer review in American hospitals, since this appears to be one kind of workplace mobbing. The foundational analogue to workplace mobbing is, for me, the mobbing that occurs among birds and animals, as Konrad Lorenz and other ethologists have studied it. You will agree, I think, that these comparisons give a slant on the subject distinct from the slant implied by words like harassment and incivility.

3. Anonymity versus naming names. Among the most basic choices each of us makes in our scholarship is whether to analyze bullying or mobbing, its origins, correlates and consequences, in broad and general terms, without reference to specific cases, or to analyze it in a specific case, identifying this person as the target of aggression, these other ones as perpetrators.

Like most researchers, I often choose the first option (as in my article in OHS Canada). A field of social science consists by definition of abstractions: concepts joined in general hypotheses and theories. Yet any such field proves its worth only in its risky, contentious application to specific cases. In research on bullying and mobbing, the fat hits the fire when the researcher says out loud that by these and those standard measures, this specific person (reputed to be a loser, abuser, nutbar, public danger, or pariah of some other sort) is the target of undeserved humiliation by these other specific people.

When, in his book, The Suicide Factory, Leymann identified certain nurses who had taken their own lives as victims of mobbing, his research became intolerable to powerful figures who had tolerated his general analyses. When Tim Field publicly defended a former employee of the National Teachers Union, he was slapped with a defamation suit that consumed his life and probably hastened his death. When I published an article (in The Record, 2004) arguing that the ouster of my city's symphony conductor, Martin Fischer-Dieskau, was a case of workplace mobbing, I angered those who had ousted him. These are hazards of our field of research, unavoidable except in an academic harbour of irrelevance.

4. Target's perceptions vs. verifiable facts. Almost by definition, bullying or mobbing entails conflicting accounts of what is going on. A real or purported target claims to have been wrongly attacked. Real or purported attackers deny, hide, or excuse what they are accused of doing. What is a researcher to do?

An informative new book by a lawyer, Bullying Bosses: a Survivor's Guide (2005), describes itself as "unapologetically pro-Target" and "from a Target's perspective...." Such a stance may be attractive in a lawyer, but not in a researcher. If we cannot get at the facts of the matter, beyond the alleged target's and alleged perpetrators' perceptions, we have no business calling ourselves social scientists.

That is why I have a problem with measures of bullying or mobbing based on targets' self-reports, as in Leymann's 45-item "LIPT," the "Leymann Inventory of Psychological Terrorization," the various adaptations of it (like the 60-item scale of Gonzàlez de Rivera and Rodríguez-Abuin), related instruments like the Bergen researchers' Negative Acts Questionnaire, or even the "social anamnesis" Leymann obtained orally from his patients.

There is an important lesson in the 2004 report by Jarreta et al. on a case of false accusation of mobbing by a woman in Spain, where the outcome was destruction of the life of the woman wrongly accused of mobbing. The simple fact is that we humans tend to justify our aggression against those we have made our enemies by claiming to have been the target of prior aggression by those enemies.

Never, in my view, should we take anybody's word that mobbing or bullying has occurred — least of all the word of somebody who wants somebody else punished. If we cannot collect data from multiple points of view (some kind of triangulation), we should quit and go home. If our scholarship is to be worthy of the name, it has to be true: not what is believed or claimed to be true by somebody or other, but what can stand up to disinterested review of all relevant evidence. That is why, in my own research, I rely as much as possible on official documents.

5. The informal phase vs. post-incident formal sanctions. The cost, of course, of my priority on formal documents is that I tend to miss the subtle, unwritten techniques of torment that usually precede a critical incident that triggers official action against the target. I miss the informal aggression (as exposed, for instance, in Duncan Lewis's research), since the target is ordinarily the only one willing to talk about it. The bullies or mobbers typically say the target is oversensitive, paranoid, imagining things.

This is a hard choice. In violation of my general principle, I have sometimes taken seriously, without independent corroboration, targets' diaries of informal humiliations at work or suicide notes they have written, and I gladly acknowledge how sly and sneaky are the weapons managers and colleagues often deploy, in universities not least, to do the target unwarranted harm. On the other hand, no good purpose is served in any workplace by encouraging oversensitivity, whining, a culture of complaint, the making of mole-hills into mountains, or the diversion of attention from achieving organizational objectives to mollycoddling. None of us wants to be or to encourage what G. B. Shaw called a "feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making me happy...." Faced with much of life, a healthy human sucks it up and moves on. That is why my research emphasis is on mobbing cases that have advanced to the point of serious, documented incursions on the target's position and name.

6. Should the definition of the phenomenon include consequences? In his foundational research, Leymann defined mobbing to include "the psychosocial stressors that cause extreme impact on the health of the victim...." It is, he said, a pattern of interaction that forces the target into a helpless position. Conceptualization of the problem in a way that encompasses both the aggression and its debilitating effects suited Leymann's vocation of clinical psychologist. Easing victims' pain was the raison d'être of his research program. Most psychologists have similarly built consequences of mobbing or bullying into the definition, and so have I.

If our field is to advance scientifically, I suspect we should define mobbing or bullying more narrowly in terms of the aggression, so that the question of effects can be left entirely open. Aggression sometimes has no ill effects on the target and fails to force the target into a helpless position. The skin of targets varies from thick to thin. As Brian Martin points out in his cogent writings on the backfire effect, aggression sometimes recoils on the aggressors. As Matthiesen points out in a fascinating case study of a whistleblower, a target can have a nervous breakdown under the weight of official ostracization and stigma, but later regain mental strength, even after losing in court. Some of the mobbed professors I have studied have been inner-directed enough to withstand intense public humiliation without crumbling physically or emotionally, indeed in some cases scarcely noticing what has been done to them.

Conceptual and operational separation of aggression from its effects lets us ask and answer questions about the conditions under which mobbing or bullying does and does not harm the target, and precisely how. Our understanding of the phenomenon is thereby enriched.

7. Motives vs. behaviours. In great part, intent defines this harm: what often debilitates the target most is feeling, indeed tasting, the perpetrators’ ill-will. Yet the intent of another can never be known for sure, and is mainly inferred from behaviours. To what extent does the researcher rely on what alleged targets and perpetrators say their and their opponents' motives are, and to what extent on what targets and perpetrators actually do?

In his wonderful posthumous book, Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm, Philip Hallie contrasts the carpenter and the walrus in Lewis Carroll's story. The carpenter is the more cold-hearted. He eats oysters without a second thought, the way some bosses crush targeted employees. The walrus, on the other hand, feels sorry for the oysters and cries into his handkerchief over their sorry fate. Alice prefers the walrus until Tweedledee points out to her that behind his handkerchief, the walrus actually wolfed down more oysters than the carpenter did. Hallie agrees with Alice in the end, saying both the walrus and the carpenter are unpleasant characters. But he tilts to the view that the dining on oysters counts for more than any diner's mental state. What happens to a mobbing target matters more than what is going on in mobbers' minds.

The question of malice, intent to harm, often arises in attempts at resolution of mobbing cases through the courts. I shrink from the question, preferring to focus above all on behaviours and actions, the sequence of events leading to the target's elimination, and on how to correct and prevent needless harm.

8. Learned behaviour vs. innate impulses. Back in 1994, when I first learned of Leymann's work, I embraced it because it made sense of the ouster of four tenured colleagues from my home university, and of a milder incursion on my own position. I did not initially trace the word mobbing back to Konrad Lorenz or read the ethological research on bird and animal mobbing. Later I read the analysis of aggressive instincts that was the context of Lorenz's use of the word mobbing, and I learned about the fierce opposition to Lorenz's work by anthropologist Ashley Montagu and many other social scientists. I came to understand that the Lorenz-Montagu debate reflected the broader debate still raging that Steven Pinker illuminates in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate.

I suspect that significant variation in how researchers study bullying or mobbing is explained by whether one conceives of the aggression to be learned behaviour, a product of culture, or a culturally conditioned expression of instinctive behavior. If it is learned, then it can be unlearned — by some kind of behaviour modification, a rewriting of the blank slate, punishment for aggressive acts and rewards for kindly acts. But if bullying or mobbing instead represents the coming to the surface of elemental impulses, then the problem is more complex and cannot be understood, much less remedied, except by grappling with both the natural and the cultural aspects of its origin.

In my own work, I value the natural, instinctual connotations of the word mobbing. What I have observed in case after case is gut revulsion for the target. He or she is one who makes others sick (the way Lawrence Summers at Harvard made Nancy Hopkins want to throw up), a destructive force from whom others need protection, one who accordingly evokes a deep-seated urge to join with others and attack.

9. Toward which remedies does the researcher tilt? All of us in the anti-mobbing, anti-bullying movement are open to diverse ways of correcting harm wrongly done: imaginative administrative solutions, publicity of the wrong, redress in the courts, removal to a new workplace, psychological or psychiatric therapy. Yet different experts tilt toward different remedies. Leymann founded the Violen Rehabilitation Centre in Karlskrona. Field used his computer skills to let apparent targets of bullying share their stories publicly. A growing number of labour lawyers advertise their services to targets of mobbing or bullying.

The important point is that one size does not fit all. The objective is that the target recover his or her working life, get it back on track. How this objective can best be achieved depends on at least five clusters of factors: (1) The nature of the aggression against the target; (2) Damages suffered — financial, reputational, physical, emotional, familial; (3) The target's resources, including bank account, personal strength, social support, and employability elsewhere; (4) The resources of the target's adversaries, and how ready to use them they appear to be; and (5) The legal and policy environment, including relevant clauses of collective agreements.

Education about mobbing and bullying is itself a remedy, for many targets a vital therapy. Hundreds of readers of my work have thanked me, and through me thanked Leymann and others, for giving them a word, mobbing, to place on otherwise incomprehensible events. While recognizing the value of psychotherapy, antidepressants, and other clinical treatments in certain cases, I am wary of pathologizing a target's distress more than is necessary, for fear of reinforcing exclusion from normal human communities. Many targets share my concern. I recently received from a beleaguered professor a request to serve as expert witness. She said she "would rather avoid an expert with a heavy slant on psychological counselling." She preferred a focus on power imbalances, professional jealousies, managerial incompetence, and false accusations. I admired how well she had educated herself.

10. Which preventive strategies are favoured? The final choice, but one related to all those preceding, is which proposed ways of preventing mobbing or bullying to spend time promoting. The strategy most popular among researchers and activists is to enact organizational policies and public laws against it. Other strategies include administrative reform and the same kind of public education referred to above for remedy of cases that have already occurred.

I am eager to hear Helge Hoel's assessment at this conference of the Swedish experience with anti-bullying legislation. I was struck by the issue of Le Nouvel Observateur (4 juin 2004), reporting that the law in France may actually have made things worse. To a researcher like me, inclined to see mobbing as an expression of elemental impulses, the practice can no more be legislated away than can hate speech or betrayal of love. For prevention of mobbing and bullying, I have more confidence in administrative reform toward more enlightened, pluralistic and democratic structures of governance. In the concluding chapter of my book, The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Universities, I offer ten specific measures of this kind. First is the mantra of the Human Resources Department at my home university, "Focus on the situation, issue, or behaviour, not the person."


The ten choices I have identified could be arranged differently. I offer them as talking points, issues for reflection and dialogue, toward the end of building a sound and practical body of knowledge about subtle but devastating forms of aggression in today's workplace bureaucracies.

The dialogue we need is not, of course, only among those of us for whom mobbing or bullying is a research specialty. Talk among ourselves, as at this conference, is essential. But talk between us and our fellow citizens in more practical occupations is equally essential. The end of this paper is an appropriately emphatic place to applaud the more public kind of conference exemplifed by the one Linda Shallcross and the other Black Sheep organized in Brisbane, Australia, in 2004.