The trend of staff picking on a colleague en masse is a tough one for the victim to cope with mentally - and tougher still for them to resolve.

In the US and in Europe outside of the UK, mobbing is a well-recognised and established pattern of workplace bullying. It has been described as “an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish and humiliate a targeted worker”, with the aim of pushing the victim out of their organisation.

Although less recognised in the UK, the problem is on the rise, and the NHS managers’ union Managers in Partnership has now produced guidance for employers and employees, following their handling of a number of mobbing cases.

Its effects can be horrendous, with victims often reporting suicidal feelings, with their mental health taking years to recover.

Staff who are mobbed often suffer a massive loss in self-esteem and confidence, and personal relationships outside the workplace can be harmed.

Critical incident

Mobbing often follows an established pattern beginning with a period of social isolation by colleagues. A whispering campaign can be orchestrated at the same time, before the staff member is subjected to petty harassment until they are provoked into a critical incident where a formal complaint is made.

The victim will often end up leaving their employer, either through a settlement, secondment, resignation or dismissal, leaving the employer to bear the costs of recruiting a replacement.

Victims may also institute legal claims against their employer, and if the organisation fails to address the problem it can develop a bad reputation, making it difficult to recruit and retain high quality staff.

Behaving badly

Claire Pullar, MiP’s national officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland, drew up

the mobbing guidance and says the UK is one of the few countries not to recognise the concept.

“It is a step on from bullying,” she says. “Bullying is recognised and help is there, but with mobbing the point of reference is altered if the majority of people are giving the same message. Sometimes the only people who the victim can turn to are people at home.”

Ms Pullar says it can be very difficult to challenge a group of colleagues behaving badly. Her advice is to get evidence and take advice from a union officer before doing anything. The union may then speak confidentially to the target’s manager, or encourage even more senior managers to intervene.

MiP has produced advice on how to prevent mobbing and what to do if you think you are a victim.

How to prevent mobbing:

  • Good induction for new employees
  • Clear rules for staff behaviour, particularly with new colleagues
  • Strong staff governance and clear policies to promote dignity and respect
  • Management intervention at the first sign of mobbing, or any other form of bullying

If you are the target:

  • Contact an MiP officer and describe the behaviour you are experiencing.
  • Keep a note of the date, events and actions you are subjected to.
  • Check your employer’s relevant policies and procedures.
  • Be clear about the outcome you want from an intervention, ie exit, formal grievance or mediation.

Case study: Two way mobbing

Alan Harrison (not his real name) was working as a manager at a PCT service provider when a number of staff under his control took exception to his focus on their job performance issues.

One member of staff in particular, whom Mr Harrison believes displayed psychopathic tendencies, corralled a number of their colleagues to level spurious grievances against him.

Mr Harrison was spied on in his own home, his mental health began to suffer, and he was eventually suspended from work.

One of the perils of mobbing is that it is easier for senior management to blame the victim, because they find it easier to disbelieve them than the large number of staff involved in the mobbing.

Consequently, Mr Harrison suffered both downwards, from senior management, and upwards, mobbing.

It was only the intervention of determined work by MiP, and a coincidental change in very senior staff at his PCT, that brought a fresh pair of eyes to the situation, and an independent inquiry was set up, which exonerated Mr Harrison of all the complaints made against him.

“Mobbing gives rise to modern-day witch trials,” says Mr Harrison.

“In my case it was only a good union rep that had the sense to see what was going on that saved me.”