Most of us leave high school and breathe a huge sigh of relief: finally, no more mean girls. Sure, we might have to deal with intimidating bosses once we hit the workforce, but the days of being whispered about, teased and made to feel worthless are over… that is, unless you fall victim to a new, nastier type of workplace bullying, known as “mobbing”.
Unlike traditional workplace bullying, which usually involves one co-worker going out of their way to make your life hell, mobbing is done by a group and is more subtle. But it can also be more dangerous.
“Instead of outright attacks, mobbers alienate people, turn others against them, spread rumours and even put in fake complaints against targets,” says Linda Shallcross, a workplace bullying researcher from Griffith University.
“The ultimate aim of mobbing is to crush and destroy the target, to get them to quit,” she adds. “It sounds dramatic, but this is how insidious and dangerous this stuff is.”
Gemma, 23, wasn’t aware she’d been a victim of mobbing until she quit her job after months of torment. She was a hard worker and she’d shot up the ranks of a retail company and landed her dream job in head office.
The women she worked with were all at least five years older than her, but they soon began to play petty games – blatantly excluding her from conversations and social activities, making sarcastic comments and picking on her work. They put Blair Waldorf and her minions to shame, except these women were in their 30s, and they were trying to destroy Gemma’s career. She began to feel so stressed and excluded that she was struggling to sleep at night, and she dreaded going to work.
One day, Gemma left Facebook signed in on her work computer, and the bullies started talking to the guy she’d been dating, telling him lies. He broke up with her.
In this age of social media it’s all too easy for mobbers to pursue a target out of the office and into their personal life. Gemma thought about complaining after the Facebook hack, but her boss was friends with many of the bullies. Besides, on paper, her accusations sounded so trivial.
After a few months of torment she quit, despite seven years of hard work with the company.
Sadly this isn’t something that rarely happens, nor is it exclusive to women in stereotypically “bitchy” industries like media and fashion. An Australian Parliamentary Report released last year estimated that up to one in three workers have been bullied, and many more just quit without reporting the problem, fearful their bosses would do nothing about it. Mobbing was singled out as one of the worst types of workplace bullying. It’s so extreme the report has even urged that police action be taken.
“It is serious,” agrees Moira Jenkins, a psychologist and founder of Aboto, a firm that helps companies deal with workplace bullying. “The victim can become very anxious and stressed, and stop sleeping or eating; they can lose their confidence and may struggle to return to the workforce if they leave the role.”
In extreme but not unheard of cases, targets take their own life. One of these victims was Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old waitress who committed suicide in 2006 after humiliating and ongoing torment from co-workers. A Victorian anti-bullying law has been named after her.
Although it’s easy to think of the mob group as monsters, many will actually believe they’re doing the right thing, says Shallcross.
“Usually the target is seen as a threat,” she explains. “One or two people will decide that they don’t like them and then they’ll start spreading rumours and demonising them, until everyone in the group believes they’re worthy of being attacked.”
When Jane, 28, found a management role in a large accountancy firm, she was put in charge of two older women who had been with the organisation a long time. Right from the start they made life difficult – making audible rude comments, bitching about her and ignoring her questions.
Then she was informed that the two women had made an official complaint against her.
“They’d claimed that I didn’t respect them and I was moody when they were the ones who were being rude to me!” she recalls.
She began dreading going into work, feeling she had no one to talk to about her attackers, because they’d made the first complaint.
“I was so anxious. I ended up having three months off work and barely leaving the house. I was seeing a psychologist and taking medication because of my depression. In the end, I never went back to the job.”
Standing up to the mob
While it’s natural to want to fit in with the group at work, it’s crucial for people to stand up to mobbing behaviour, says Jenkins. “You don’t have to confront the bullies, but tell a manager that it’s happening and refuse to take part in their gossip and rumour-spreading.”
She recommends anyone who has seen mobbing or been subject to it should check their organisation’s bullying policy, and see if there are guidelines. “The most important thing is to speak to someone you trust, whether that’s a doctor, friend, co-worker, someone in HR or your manager,” says Jenkins.
If it becomes unbearable, you can speak to the Australian Human Rights Commission, or investigate making a WorkCover claim.
But if no amount of mediation or positive thinking can improve the situation, Shallcross and Jenkins agree that you may need to quit your job and focus on healing.
For Gemma, that took months. Even though she quickly found a new role, the anxiety followed her, and she is still learning to trust in her work and relax in the office.
“Targets need to do what’s best for them and remember they’ve done nothing wrong,” says Jenkins.
And don’t be afraid every job will be the same – there will be other organisations that value and support your work. “Bullying is a symptom of a poorly managed organisation,” Jenkins adds. “People begin to doubt their ability to do their job or think maybe they deserved being bullied, when really the company or team is at fault.” Words by Alice Maguire.