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Feature Articles : Mobbing: Bullying's Ugly Cousin

The following article courtesy No Bully For Me.

Mobbing: Bullying's Ugly Cousin
By Ann Kerr,
Globe and Mail, Dec. 8, 2004

 
   

For Karen Learmonth, a manager at a company in Western Canada, it started slowly.

"Some people stopped saying 'Hello.' They whispered behind my back. It was hard to get my orders filled in the warehouse," she recalls.

Then the sense of being shunned by her colleagues got worse.

"I wasn't invited to . . . meetings. Internal changes were made to my department without my knowledge," Ms. Learmonth maintains.

She hurt her back on the job and went on disability leave. But when her back improved and it came time to return to work, she found she couldn't.

"I wasn't sleeping or eating and I had the shakes. Whenever I went near the place, I threw up. My doctor said that I'd been traumatized and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," says Ms. Learmonth, who remains on long-term disability leave.

What Ms. Learmonth experienced fits the description of what the experts call mobbing.

It occurs when people in a workplace gang up to unfairly ridicule, ostracize and eventually force out a fellow employee. The target can be a colleague, subordinate or even a boss.


...mobbing can start with one or two perpetrators,
then spread like a virus through
an entire organization.


It's a lesser-known form of workplace harassment than bullying but it is just as destructive, says Noa Davenport, a cultural anthropologist and co-author of Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.

In fact, some argue that mobbing can be even worse. Unlike bullying, which is carried out by one person and stops if that person is moved, fired or otherwise removed, mobbing can start with one or two perpetrators, then spread like a virus through an entire organization.

Like many Canadians, Ms. Learmonth hadn't even heard of mobbing until her experience.

Though barely recognized in North America, mobbing is considered a serious workplace threat by several European countries, which have instituted legal protections against it, Ms. Davenport says.

"This is a serious health and safety issue that's costing billions of dollars in lost productivity and stress-related illness," she adds. "But most organizations don't see the problem. They think it's something people can just work out themselves."

Estimates of how often mobbing occurs vary widely. At the very least, 2 to 5 per cent of people will be mobbed some time during their work life, according to German psychologist Heinz Leymann, the first to study and name the phenomenon 20 years ago.

But mobbing and other forms of workplace harassment seem to be on the rise, says Gerry Smith, vice-president of organizational health at WarrenShepell in Toronto, judging from recent cases dealt with by his firm, which provides employee assistance programs and other health services to business.

"I know from the work at WarrenShepell that there's been a fairly substantial increase in cases in the past five years," says Mr. Smith, who is conducting free seminars to help businesses identify and address mobbing and other forms of workplace harassment.


Eventually, mobbing sends targeted employees
into a downward spiral... They quit, get fired,
or get sick and go on extended leave.


 
   

Being treated in an uncivil manner by colleagues a couple of times doesn't count as mobbing. To fit the definition devised by Mr. Leymann, you have to be mistreated several times a week by two or more people, for at least six months.

In many cases, Ms. Davenport says, the mobbing can go on for years.
Eventually, mobbing sends targeted employees into a downward spiral, she says. They quit, get fired, or get sick and go on extended leave.

In some cases, senior management even tacitly encourages the behaviour, says Linda Shallcross, a public sector management researcher at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

"It's a way of getting rid of a person who's been doing their job but, for some reason, they don't like. If it was a constructive dismissal, they'd have to pay. They're hoping the person will just quit," says Ms. Shallcross, who is conducting a study of Australian women in different occupations who have been mobbed.

People working in large bureaucracies where there's little accountability and few ways to measure achievement can turn to mobbing to vent their frustrations, says Kenneth Westhues, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo and an author of two books about mobbing in academia.

Like many who research and write about mobbing, Prof. Westhues says he was a victim himself at one point in his career.

"Generally, it's a group ganging up on someone because they don't fit in -- they may look or act different, or have a stronger work ethic. The person can become a scapegoat for whatever's wrong in the office," adds Frema Engel, an organizational consultant who is head of Engel and Associates in Montreal, and the author of Taming the Beast: Getting Violence Out of the Workplace.

Sometimes it starts as a conflict with one person, who then convinces or coerces others to ostracize the victim, Ms. Engel says.


What makes mobbing so dangerous...
is that "it's so subtle, so hard to prove.
But the effects are devastating."


Downsizing and the stress that goes with it can be an incubator for irrational mob behaviour, Mr. Smith says.

Job insecurity leads to fear and frustration, while managers have less time to actually manage their staff and notice inappropriate behaviour, he adds.
What makes mobbing so dangerous, Ms. Davenport says, is that "it's so subtle, so hard to prove. But the effects are devastating."

Victims may suffer stress-induced ailments, including headaches, stomach aches, high blood pressure and psychological problems, Ms. Davenport says.

In extreme cases, mobbing can even be life-threatening. Ms. Learmonth, who helps to run a Vancouver Web-based support group called No Bully For Me, says some mobbing victims she hears from contemplate suicide.

Group harassment can have tragic consequences for all involved as in the 1999 case of former OC Transpo employee Pierre Lebrun, who shot and killed four people at the company in Ottawa and then himself. The coroner's inquest indicated that Mr. Lebrun had been ridiculed and ostracized, and recommended new laws and company policies to prevent hostile behaviour from getting out of control.

So far, Quebec is the only jurisdiction in North America to deal directly with mobbing, bullying and other kinds of workplace harassment, with an amendment this June to its labour code, but it's still too early to tell how effective it will actually be, says Pierre Jauvin, an employment lawyer with Langlois Kronstrom Desjardins in Montreal.

Elsewhere, it's still difficult to fight a legal battle against mobbing, says Norman Grosman, a senior partner at Toronto employment law firm Grosman Grosman and Gale.

"You can launch a human rights complaint . . . but people are usually picked on in subtle ways -- not being included in the conversation, not being invited to parties -- that aren't covered in the legislation." Mr. Grosman says.


Some public and private employers
do recognize that mobbing is
a definite workplace hazard.


If the mobbing is too unbearable to stay at your job, you could try to sue for constructive dismissal, he says. Everyone is legally entitled to a workplace that is civil, decent and fair, he adds, but the onus is on you to prove it wasn't.

To do that, typically you need corroborating evidence, provided by witnesses, and that can be very hard to get, Mr. Grosman says.

Some public and private employers do recognize that mobbing is a definite workplace hazard.

New Brunswick Power Corp. in Fredericton, for instance, has a 'respectful workplace' policy, says Rita Hurley, the full-time diversity manager who holds workshops to teach managers and other employees how to prevent mobbing and diffuse it when it occurs.

Ms. Engel and Mr. Smith have worked with a number of firms, and Prof. Westhues has been consulted by unions and professional associations in Canada.

While people might have legitimate complaints against others in their workplaces, it's "never justifiable to torment another person," Ms. Davenport says.

Instead, concerns about a colleague's performance or personal conduct should be dealt with officially through proper channels, she says.

More public education and better company policies are what's needed most to prevent negative group think from taking hold, mobbing experts and victims say. No Bully for Me is seeking funding to start a national telephone hotline.

Beyond its harrowing impact on personal lives and workplace productivity, there's another sobering reason for organizations to take mobbing more seriously, Ms. Engel says.

"It's usually just one symptom of a lot of other conflicts in an unhealthy work environment," she says. "The only way to cure it is to bring it out into the open and deal with it."

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Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.

~ Elie Wiesel

 
 

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~ Sir Winston Churchill

 
 
Support Group

Calgary, AB

For more information about joining our workplace bullying support group in Calgary please
click here to
email Anton.

 
Interview with a Target of
Workplace Bullying

by John Peel
on Home Truths,
BBC Radio 4
(mp3)

Courtesy BullyEQ
 
 

WEBQuotes


Calgary Herald
"...grossly unacceptable employer behaviour."
> AFL
"There was a lot of bullying in the newsroom and it was a gift to be able to stand up and say we are prepared to do something about it."
> UNB

Canwest Global
"The CanWest corporation is showing the ugly and intolerant face of modern media," ... "While openly interfering in editorial content it cravenly punishes those journalists who have the courage to protest."
> IFJ
"Many journalists left CanWest, deciding to quit or take disability leave after the frigid mood of their newsrooms made them ill."
> Canwest Watch

Imperial Parking
"Timothy Lloyd decided he had had enough of "going in to war every day." ... I was very unhappy in my work -- burned out, stressed out ... There were constant threats of dismissal, constant invading of my personal space, and use of profanity that was personally directed at me."
> HealthSmith

Annuity Research & Marketing Service Ltd.
"Every employer, said Justice Dambrot, owes a contractual duty to its employees to “treat them fairly, with civility, decency, respect, and dignity.” By failing to protect Ms. Stamos from Mr. Hammami’s harassment, the court concluded that the employer had breached this contractual duty."
> Labor Relations Consultants


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