Workplace Mobbing Situations
in Consulting and Organizational
A session of the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Diego, California, August 12, 2010.
Presenters Mark Schneider (left), Joan Friedenberg, and Kenneth Westhues (right) with former APA president Gerald Koocher (second from left), who served as expert witness in the legal case analyzed in this session.
(1) Joan Friedenberg, "Consulting Psychology and the Phenomenon of Mobbing"
(2) Mark A. Schneider, "How a Consulting Psychologist Exacerbated a Mobbing"
(3) Kenneth Westhues, "Apollonius, Reverend Hale, and Consulting Psychology"
(4) Mark A. Schneider, "Conclusion"
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Part 1: Consulting Psychology and the Phenomenon of Mobbing
Joan Friedenberg (jefriedenberg at bellsouth.net)
A 2009 special issue of the Consulting Psychology Journal (61:3) offered members of this division a welcome overview of workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as of strategies for dealing with these phenomena. As mobbing and bullying have received increased public attention, for instance via Sutton’s broadside against workplace bullying in The No-Asshole Rule (Business Plus, 2007), it was to be expected that they would be seen as an opportunity for successful intervention by consulting or organizational psychologists. In this presentation, we introduce a note of caution with regard to mobbing, which received much less attention in the special issue of CPJ than bullying. Targets of mobbing are often designated bullies by those who wish to drive them from the workplace, and consulting psychologists who are not sufficiently alert to this possibility may well add their voice to that of the mob, and buttress it with their professional expertise and reputation.
Contributor Maureen Duffy alludes to this when she writes that “the risk of introducing antimobbing or antibullying policies [in the workplace]…is that the…policies [themselves]… could be used to target high-value employees perceived as threats by others” (61:3, p. 250). Yet constructing mobbing targets as bullies is one of several common tactics co-workers use to engineer their elimination from the workplace, whether antibullying policies have been introduced or not. Consulting psychologists unable to distinguish real bullies from those constructed as such by hopeful mobbers may well find that what appeared to be a new opportunity to exercise their consulting skills turns into a fiasco. We will examine such a fiasco in detail and then offer some practical advice about how to avoid becoming involved in one.
Our discussion will suggest that intervening successfully in mobbing cases calls for unusual acumen and sensitivity to ethical issues. We will see what happens when neither is shown, and ask you to consider the image that this creates of consulting psychologists and their work.
Let’s begin with a brief overview of mobbing. In the special issue of CPJ, Len Sperry defines mobbing as “the nonsexual harassment of a coworker by a group of other members of an organization for the purpose of removing the targeted individual(s) from the organization or at least a particular unit of the organization” (61:3, p. 191). Bullying, he suggests, is more often done by a single offender, whether peer or supervisor, without other members of the workgroup being involved.
What causes a mob to form? We might better answer this were members of mobs more willing to participate in research, but since they perceive themselves, quite correctly, to be pre-judged and stigmatized by the very terminology, they are not generally forthcoming. What seems clear is that they come to view the target with genuine fear and loathing and believe that the target’s presence in the organization damages them as individuals and the output of their unit. Consensus over this develops as stories or rumors about the target’s supposedly damaging behavior or beliefs circulate within the group. As consensus develops on this score, exclusionary practices are initiated and intensify. The target is not invited to social occasions; the target’s comments in meetings cause numerous eyes to roll; messages left for the target fail to be delivered; etc., etc.
What have targets done to excite this fear and loathing and thus invite exclusion? The shortest answer is that they have proven to be a pain in the ass and to possess attributes that make them appear “different.” The ways to be a pain in the ass are myriad. Groups unused to following rules may be asked by targets to follow them. Targets may badger group members with their opinions, for instance about whether to unionize. Targets may file grievances that upset the standing order of things. They may rate-bust by over-producing. In short, they prove in some respects “not easy to get along with” in terms of the work unit’s existing culture or habits. At the same time, they often possess attributes that make them “different.” They are the lone working class member of a middle class group. They speak with an accent and bring peculiar-smelling lunches to work when everyone else orders out. They are of a different faith. They are conservative in a liberal workplace, or vice versa. They have a degree of OCD and some mild tics. Something, in other words, sets them apart.
Targets may be tolerated by colleagues for some time while being excluded. The colleagues have little choice: unless supervisors are already amenable to sanctioning targets, colleagues can do no more than try to exercise informal social control over them, making the target’s life somewhere from unpleasant to miserable. Mobbing generally enters a more serious phase as the result of a precipitating incident. The target does something that excites collective outrage, often by failing to observe an important local piety. The group then organizes more decisively against the target and launches a campaign for formal sanction. An indictment is produced and offered to supervisors. Supervisors may then ask the target to explain him- or herself.
Mob and target are now engaged in what sociologists call a “framing contest.” Framing contests occur when competing political factions seek to control the framework in which particular events are seen: is the Iraq war one of liberation or of occupation, for instance, or is drug use to be seen as a criminal or a medical problem. In the case of mobbing, the target has behaved in a certain way, one which he or she believes to have been occupationally and interpersonally responsible. A group of colleagues has organized to frame this behavior as irresponsible and threatening to the workplace, to themselves, or to both. The precipitating incident, they argue, is only the tip of the iceberg: beneath this tip, they assemble a mass of often vaguely-described infamy.
Punishing the target vindicates the mobbers' frame, while failure to do so at least partially vindicates the target’s frame. In these circumstances, what is a supervisor to do? In formulating a response, a supervisor must take several things into account. To begin with, the indictment that members of a mob produce will leave little doubt that the target is having a significant impact upon his or her colleagues. What is striking in most indictments is the fear of the target that is expressed. Commonly, the target is pictured as harassing, hectoring, or bullying. In one case I know of, a woman who was asked a difficult question by a target informally in the hallway, a question that required the woman to account for some problematic behavior, viewed this as harassment and threatened a grievance should any further such “bullying” occur. In another, a woman claimed to suffer palpitations in the presence of a woman target. Still another woman reacted fearfully to a male target’s habit of rapping his knuckles on walls as he walked down corridors and viewed this as sexual harassment. Arguments targets initiate that become heated but remain entirely substantive can be seen as efforts at intimidation. But, however apparently trivial to an outside observer are the stimuli, the feelings they evoke are real. Perhaps as a means of reducing cognitive dissonance, mob members construct the target as powerful and overbearing, as someone from whom colleagues need to be protected. Pervasive fear makes the workplace toxic and cripples the work unit…or so it is claimed.
Targets, if given a chance to defend themselves, normally claim that their behavior and opinions are unexceptionable. They advance a point of view, or act in ways, that they believe will benefit the organization. For example, they point out that the union asked for legitimate grievances to be filed so as to help clarify the contract language, and, furthermore, that all of the grievances they filed were successful. The arguments the target got into may have been heated, but addressed important issues, remained on point, and never became ad hominem. Etc., etc.
Supervisors are now put in the position of having to decide whether the target is an asshole, perhaps subject to Sutton’s “no asshole rule,” or a just a person with some quirks from whom the work group might benefit….if only it could learn to tolerate. Unfortunately, supervisors are neither well equipped nor well disposed to make such discriminations. Seriously investigating the claims against a target would take a great deal of time and energy, not to speak of investigative skill, and doing so would involve supervisors in messy interpersonal problems for which they have little taste and even less acumen. And it’s very hard for supervisors to go against the numerical weight of the mobbers: they are many and the target only one.
I have spoken thus far as if the supervisor were above the fray and overlooking it as an unwilling and ill-prepared judge. This will more likely be true the weaker the network ties between supervisor and work unit. But often supervisors become members of mobs or, indeed, engineer them. The target whose behavior and beliefs have exercised colleagues may also have proven a pain in the ass to a supervisor. The more dense and vibrant the network ties between supervisor and unit members, the more likely is he or she to side with them in hostility toward the target. Further, the more directly involved in the work of the unit is the supervisor, the more likely is he or she to organize a mob to eliminate a target who is a talented potential rival or other form of threat.
Suppose now a consulting psychologist is called in to reduce the perceived toxicity of the workplace. Thanks to the special issue of CPJ, the consulting psychologist will now perhaps be aware of mobbing as a concept, but will likely never have dealt with one before. It is obviously necessary to get one’s feet solidly on the ground, but the terrain is treacherous. If we assume for the moment that a supervisor is not involved with the mob, both sides will want to use the psychologist to help win the framing contest. Do we have here an asshole, or an outcast who is being targeted? Numerous voices contend the former, a solitary one the latter. A psychologist who goes against this flow will have made many enemies and only one friend. Thus doing so requires some courage, but knowing that it should be done first requires the sort of serious investigation that could lay the groundwork for impugning the opinion of the mob. In the last part of this presentation, we will offer some suggestions about how to conduct such an investigation, and would look forward to input from consulting psychologists who deal with mobbing.
The problem becomes even more vexed when the supervisor who contracted for the consulting psychologist’s services is aligned with the mob. In this case, the psychologist is probably expected to aid in or otherwise validate the mobbing, and this puts him or her in the position of potentially practicing something like “political psychiatry.” Political psychiatry was used by the Soviet Union to get political dissidents “off the streets” and into psychiatric wards, something that required the psychiatrists to produce phony diagnoses. Mobbers will offer a consulting psychologist plenty of “evidence” for viewing their target as interpersonally or occupationally destructive, and if supervisors are part of the mob, the consultant is placed in a difficult position. Uncovering and standing up for the truth may mean biting the hand that feeds one. This is especially difficult to do if consultant and supervisor have established good working and interpersonal relations in the negotiations leading to the consulting contract.
These are only a few of the reasons that make intervention in a mobbing difficult and ethically challenging. Let us turn now to a concrete case and examine how a consulting psychologist performed.
Part 2: How a Consulting Psychologist Exacerbated a Mobbing
Mark A. Schneider (masch at aya.yale.edu)
Our case is already the subject of a chapter in a book on mobbing. That chapter provides background that we are unable to give here. We’ve added material particularly relevant to the Consulting Psychology Division that comes from depositions taken in lawsuits and we have changed names.
The target was “Professor Rebecca Gold.” Professor Gold was a Jewish woman and seasoned full professor at a large mid-western university located in an otherwise small university town. She was highly productive and outspoken. She helped organize the faculty union and related protest activities, wrote letters to the editor criticizing administrators, and filed some successful grievances.
Many of Professor Gold’s colleagues did not like her. The full array of reasons would be too lengthy to go into—see the book chapter--but perhaps chief among them was that she filed grievances against her department chair. As to her exclusion, she claimed colleagues had disparaging nicknames for her, did not invite her to social events, ignored her in faculty meetings, stole her mail, slammed their office doors when she was seen in the hallway, and blamed her for numerous departmental problems. Colleagues treated another professor, Prof. Patel, similarly as she had also made complaints against the department chair.
Interpersonal relations became so strained that Professors Gold and Patel approached the university chancellor and requested help for the dysfunctional department. The university requested from the director of its student counseling office a referral and was given the name of consulting psychologist Dr. Barbara Taylor. Dr. Taylor had three degrees in counseling psychology, was a state-licensed psychologist, was the director of the student counseling center at a nearby university, and was a member of the Consulting Psychology Division of the APA. The university made it clear in its written correspondence with Dr. Taylor that she was being hired to conduct “counseling and conflict resolution” for the members of the troubled department. The provost who contracted with Dr. Taylor had previously been a member of the troubled department, in which the provost’s husband remained a faculty member and aspired to lead.
Dr. Taylor arrived on the campus and interviewed each faculty member individually, using the same instrument to gather information. She did not explain what her role was nor discuss confidentiality or any possible limits to it. She instructed Professor Gold not to name any specific colleagues or to bring up any issues not addressed on the interview instrument. At the end of the interview, Dr. Taylor advised Professor Gold to “stop filing grievances,” something Professor Gold had never mentioned in the interview. Dr. Taylor also supported Professor Gold’s disinclination, being on sabbatical, to attend a group meeting that was scheduled about a month later.
At the group meeting, Dr. Taylor handed out the results of the instrument, which consisted of a list of all faculty members’ unattributed responses to each question. Faculty immediately began to speculate about who made which responses. Dr. Patel, who attended the group meeting, later told Dr. Gold that it turned into a complaint fest targeting Professor Gold. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Taylor sent a preliminary report of her findings by e-mail to Professor Gold’s department chair, dean and provost, which appended the faculty members’ (unattributed) responses to the questions on the instrument, and a summary in which Dr. Taylor wrote that:
Several faculty expressed the opinion that Rebecca Gold was the source of their problems. Her name was mentioned at a higher frequency than any other name during the individual interviews as well. This points to the need for a meeting of the faculty with a university official, possibly the dean, to allow faculty to openly discuss their fear of and anger towards this faculty member. It would be important for this official to have a direct conversation with Rebecca to discuss the impact she is having on departmental faculty as a whole and address the personal ramifications of her behavior. Assistance to change the destructive behaviors should be offered if she so desires.
There was no explanation of what caused Prof. Gold’s colleagues to fear her, or of how her behavior was “destructive”—though this latter point might refer to her successful grievances against the chair. Colleagues who were later deposed could give no explanation for their fear of Prof. Gold other than that she was “a powerful full professor.” They explained their hostility to her in terms of her “negativity” and “failure to go along with the consensus.”
Dr. Taylor instructed the department chair to e-mail the preliminary report to “the faculty.” The department chair e-mailed it to the faculty in the department, to faculty in other departments who had occasional cross appointments, to department secretaries, and to several administrators, including the provost. No caveats or instructions were included, so that recipients were free to further forward the report.
Upon seeing the report and its wide distribution, Professor Gold indicated she experienced a panic attack and sent an angry response to Dr. Taylor demanding to know what she had done to warrant the conclusions in Dr. Taylor’s report. Dr. Taylor forwarded Professor Gold’s angry response to Professor Gold’s department chair, dean and provost and then invited Professor Gold to keep writing to her with her ideas and comments. Sensing she was being compromised, Professor Gold stopped writing to Dr. Taylor.
Dr. Taylor then wrote a separate report for Professor Gold’s administration. Based on rumors Dr. Taylor had heard, she speculated that Professor Gold filed grievances and voted against colleagues’ tenure because she had been fired from a previous administrative position at the university and was angry. Yet Professor Gold had never been fired from any previous position and had supported all of her colleagues’ tenure bids but one (one that the administration did not support, either). Perhaps as a result of Dr. Taylor’s report, Professor Gold’s colleagues and administration were emboldened, not only increasing their harassment of her, but seeking ways to terminate her employment.
Professor Gold filed two lawsuits and an APA complaint against Dr. Taylor. One lawsuit claimed Dr. Taylor had conspired with University administrators to chill Prof. Gold’s speech. A second accused Dr. Taylor of malpractice. The APA complaint listed violations of the APA Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct. In response, Dr. Taylor claimed to have disposed of her notes and data for the consulting job, and, having perhaps no liability insurance, organized a limited-liability corporation that she claimed existed prior to that consultation. She also recruited several consulting psychologists from Division 13 to serve as expert witnesses, while Professor Gold recruited Gerald Koocher (who agreed that his real name would be used.)
Though a very active member of the Consulting Psychology Division, Dr. Taylor denied in her deposition being a consulting psychologist and even a psychologist and insisted, instead, that she was a management consultant. Because she was not functioning as a psychologist, Dr. Taylor also claimed that she was not obligated to avoid harming Prof. Gold. Her expert witnesses agreed: one stated that Dr. Taylor was a member of Division 13 only “because Division 13 is a friendly, collegial group of people who like each other and respect each other and you just get a very warm feeling just being around those people. And it’s a great experience.” In response to Dr. Taylor’s claims, Gerald Koocher stated that: “Despite holding a license as a psychologist, membership in the APA, and her active participation in the Society of Consulting Psychology, Dr. Taylor asserts that she was not functioning as a psychologist or as an organizational psychology consultant. These assertions are invalid and are feeble attempts to avoid being held accountable for her professional errors.”
In her defense, Dr. Taylor also claimed that the APA Ethics Code applies only in “individual therapy relationships.” Her Division 13 experts agreed and stated that as long as Dr. Taylor was functioning as an OD or an OD&C consultant, the Code did not apply. One indicated that there was considerable controversy within the APA about whether the Code applied to members of Divisions 13 and 14. In response, Gerald Koocher wrote that this "alleged controversy exists only in the minds of a few deluded individuals. Neither the APA Ethics Committee nor the Council of Representatives has ever carved out such an exception."
A third claim by Dr. Taylor was that it was permissible to have forwarded Prof. Gold’s e-mail to her administration because Professor Gold did not specifically request that it not be shared. Dr. Taylor’s experts agreed, saying that limits to confidentiality do not need to be discussed unless the interviewee raises the question. Calling this “informed consent by default,” Gerald Koocher disagreed and stated that Dr. Taylor not only failed to alert participants in the consultation of limits on confidentiality, she also disseminated information Prof. Gold reasonably assumed would be treated as confidential.
A fourth claim by Dr. Taylor was that the conclusions in her report about Prof. Gold were not her own; she was merely acting as a conduit for Prof. Gold’s colleagues. Although not involved with the consulting themselves, Dr. Taylor’s experts agreed and stated that they could not imagine those being Dr. Taylor’s own conclusions. Gerald Koocher’s response to this claim was that “even if it were to be true, one would have to question Dr. Taylor’s competence as a consultant, as the assertion would suggest that no professional value was added in providing her services.” Koocher also stated that she “should have recognized that her method of data collection and her manner of reporting same would have significant adverse consequences for Prof. Gold.”
Dr. Koocher summed up Dr. Taylor’s consultation in this way:
Dr. Taylor has at minimum acknowledged failure to follow proper notification, confidentiality protection, and record retention requirements. In addition, by failing to clarify relationships and limits of confidentially, and by subsequently releasing information in the manner described, Dr. Taylor caused foreseeable harm to Prof. Gold. The harm resulted from behavior on the part of Dr. Taylor that was clearly in violation of well-accepted professional standards.
It is difficult to decide whether the behavior of the consulting psychologist reflected inexperience, incompetence, or collusion with a provost who was part of the mob—or from a combination of the three. We might hope this behavior was unusual among consulting psychologists, but the testimony of her expert witnesses gives cause for worry on this count, as they seemed only too willing to excuse it, as well as to claim exemption from the APA Code of Conduct. None of this is particularly encouraging about the ability of consulting psychologists to intervene in mobbings, but, should they do so, we have some advice about how to avoid a similar fiasco.
Part 3: Apollonius, Reverend Hale, and Consulting Psychology
By Kenneth Westhues (kwesthue at uwaterloo.ca)
When a job yields respect, money and power, the person in the job tends to take a rosy view of it, and to recoil from more critical, balanced, truthful analyses.
At the age of 29, I was offered a job as chair of the fractious sociology department of a major Canadian university. I leapt at the opportunity for career advance, confident that I had earned it through scholarly achievement and leadership skills. I would have recoiled at that time from an analysis of my appointment in terms of the dean’s intuition that he could more easily control a young, inexperienced newcomer than some senior professor already there, one who knew the local ropes. Only much later, after I had done some good in the job but also harm, did the considerable truth in the latter, more critical analysis dawn on me.
The present symposium offers critical reflections on the job of consulting psychologist. Many people in this job, inclined to a rosy view of it, may recoil from these reflections, react defensively. Those consulting psychologists open-minded enough to listen to what Friedenberg, Schneider and I have to say, may find insights that help them do more good in their jobs and less harm. To them, this symposium may be the kind of gift I wish somebody had given me when I took that job of department chair many decades ago.
Research Basis and Approach
To understand the present paper, it is essential to bear its empirical basis in mind. The basis is not research directly on consulting psychologists – interviews, for instance, with a random sample. I come to the subject matter from a different direction. Twenty years ago I began studying what Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann identified in the 1980s as “workplace mobbing”, a terrifying collective process that has also been called scapegoating, witch hunt, ganging up, making fanatic common cause to position a workmate outside the circle of respectability, treat him or her like toxic waste – in fine, like shit. As word spread of my research, hundreds of cases were brought to my attention. I studied as many as I could, especially in academic workplaces, trying to discern commonalities and differences, causal factors, and consequences for the target, the mobbers, and the workplace itself.
I didn’t go looking for consulting psychologists, but I observed that the employer engaged one in a substantial minority of mobbing cases, maybe 20 percent, especially but not only in academe, and that this consultant generally delivered a report that gave unwarranted scientific legitimacy to the target’s humiliation. That set me to thinking, reading, and now writing about this job.
One cannot generalize from the examples of consulting psychology I have studied, in the unusual circumstance of mobbing, to the entire field. A quick review of articles in Consulting Psychology Journal shows that most work in this field has nothing to do with mobbing. Such a review, however, even of the 2009 special issue on bullying and mobbing, documents a common inattention to the political context in which psychological consultants work. The present paper, indeed this whole symposium, may be a needed, albeit jarring corrective.
Like anything else, the role of consulting psychologist is best understood in historical perspective. As long as there have been human communities and organizations, their leaders have from time to time called in outside experts for advice. Sometimes the leaders have a strong hunch what the experts will say, and mainly seek the legitimacy of independent confirmation. In an off-the-record preliminary meeting, leaders may even let the outsider know the kind of recommendations they expect. Other times, the leaders are at wit’s end, searching for new ideas for solving whatever the problem is. Sometimes the procedures the expert should follow are spelled out, other times not.
In any case, one cheap alternative open to the outside expert is to identify some member of the community or organization as a demon, a fundamentally flawed character, and rally this person’s peers, as well as the leadership, to humiliate and destroy him or her. Essentially, the expert instigates the process of scapegoating, or ratifies this process already underway, as a way of strengthening group solidarity at one person’s expense and thereby alleviating the stresses or problems at hand. Stanford professor René Girard has analyzed scapegoating better than anyone I can think of. His book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, is a good introduction to his work.
Girard himself describes one important predecessor of today’s consulting psychologist, the Greek philosopher and teacher, Apollonius of Tyana, who lived about the same time as Jesus, and whose biography was written by Philostratus a century or two later. Apollonius is called to Ephesus as an outside expert, when the city is threatened by some kind of strife. Entering the city, Apollonius points to a beggar, singles him out as the source of the trouble, and urges the Ephesians to stone him. They shrink from doing so. The beggar seems harmless enough. Apollonius eggs them on. The stoning begins. As the beggar is struck, his appearance changes. He is revealed to be in fact a wild animal, a mad dog, big as a lion, foaming at the mouth. The Ephesians stone him to a pulp. Their city is freed from its distress. They are so glad they erect a statue of Hercules on the spot. Hurrah for the miracle-worker Apollonius! As Girard drily observes, “The miracle consists of triggering a mimetic contagion so powerful that it finally polarizes the entire population of the city against the unfortunate beggar.”
Leap forward sixteen centuries and cross an ocean to a little New England town where the inherent human impulse to scapegoat surfaces differently. Like ancient Ephesus, Salem is troubled. Also like Ephesus, it recruits an outside expert to make things right: in this case Reverend John Hale, a Harvard-educated pastor in the neighboring town of Beverly. Hale does not incite scapegoating as Apollonius did. He doesn’t need to. Rumors of demonic possession and witchcraft are already rife. Hale only guides the process, helps it along. Nor does he rely, as Apollonius did, on personal intuition. As the credentialed possessor of systematic knowledge, Hale arrives with a tall stack of books, antecedents of today’s DSM-IV. As portrayed by Arthur Miller in the classic play and film, The Crucible, Hale assures the people of Salem that he knows about “all your familiar spirits – your incubi and succubi; your witches that go by air and by sea; your wizards of the night and the day. Have no fear now – we shall find him out if he has come among us, and I mean to crush him utterly if he has shown his face.” And so the drama proceeds, culminating in the execution of 20 identified witches and noncapital punishment of about 130 more. Then, with accusations against his own wife, the scapegoating process hits too close to home and Hale has second thoughts. In 1697, five years after the Salem witch trials, he publishes a book lamenting them. The book does not bring any of the hanged witches back to life.
Against this historical background, the hypothesis I offer here is easy to understand, even if scary to contemplate: that in the workplaces of today’s secular Western world, consulting psychologists sometimes play the same role Apollonius and Reverend Hale played earlier, fingering scapegoats and giving a gloss of legitimacy to procedures for their humiliation and social elimination. All the consulting psychologists I have come across in my research on mobbing have played this role. I chalk it up more to intellectual than to moral deficiencies. The consultants struck me as naive, unreflective, politically obtuse – more even than I was when I took the job of department chair 35 years ago. Their expertise was too much limited to knowing where their bread was buttered. The mobbing was usually well advanced by the time the psychologist was called in. Little effort was required to take cues from management and listen to members of the work unit, then factually report the consensus, that Professor X is the source of the problems. That is what the consultant did in the case of “Rebecca Gold,” among many other cases.
Psychologists are not the only consultants I have observed behaving as instruments of mobbing. Others include psychiatrists, specialists in organizational development, accountants (especially forensic auditors), professional mediators, private investigators, experts in conflict resolution, and still other kinds of management consultant. For any of these, one easy way out of a daunting job fraught with ambiguity is to identify somebody, bluntly or subtly, as what Henrik Ibsen called An Enemy of the People (in Norwegian, en Folkefiende), then leave, let the people do what they will (it’s their decision, after all; the consultant only files a report; diffusion of responsibility is sweet), return home, send a bill for professional services, and go on to the next client.
The effect of this is to exacerbate the mobbing. In many cases, mobbers collectively draw up and sign a document denouncing the target as destructive, deviant, deserving of exclusion and punishment. In cases like Rebecca Gold’s, the consulting psychologist spares the mobbers the trouble and risk of producing this document, essentially does it for them, but more effectively, since the consultant’s report carries the weight of an outsider’s independent professional expertise. The expertise is sham, an embellished form of the same mimetic contagion Girard observed in the story of Apollonius at Ephesus.
The data presented to the consulting psychologist sometimes do not extend beyond conversations with a couple of managers, as in the case I have studied of a whistle-blower Canadian police officer. The consultant wrote that the officer’s thinking was disordered and delusional, that “you need to find a way to get him to a psychiatric assessment by compulsion,” that “you shouldn’t blame yourself if he commits suicide,” and that “if you have enough information to arrest him and take him to a psychiatric facility, do it” – all this without ever speaking with the police officer. The consultant in this case simply lent his professional credibility to the opinions of the mobbing target’s workplace superior, a practice widespread and rightly condemned in Stalinist Russia but too often overlooked in today’s Canada and America.
Ordering a targeted employee for assessment by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist of the employer’s choosing is a common mobbing technique, deployed toward the same end as in the cases described above, for discrediting the target officially. Rarely is such assessment done in a competent, independent way. The employee is usually best advised to refuse the order, even at the risk of being fired, and to make his or her own choice of a mental-health professional, if the employee and his or her closest friends think assessment or counseling is needed. Mental illness is a debilitating stigma in the world of work. If this stigma is to be worn, it should be only because evidence compels it, not because the wearer was on the losing side of a workplace quarrel.
Problem and Solution
The nub of the problem, so far as I can see – beyond naiveté, opportunism, gullibility, and the mischief to which the role of outside expert lends itself – is that many consulting psychologists (how many I cannot say) have a mind-set that exaggerates the prevalence of mentally disordered employees. They have read too many books about “the psychopaths among us” (Robert Hare), “the sociopath next door” (Martha Stout), workplace assholes (Robert Sutton), and too few books like Frank Furedi’s Culture of Fear. They are not attentive enough to the literature on “fundamental attribution error.” Their message echoes too much the smugness attributed to Reverend Hale in Salem, as if they “know all your familiar pathologies – your narcissists and paranoids, bipolars and borderlines, your bullies who harass by Facebook and by phone, your predators on the tenured and the untenured. Have no fear now – we shall find the devil if one is among us, and I mean to crush him or her utterly.”
The research literature on workplace mobbing is available, much of it online for free, to consulting psychologists who want to put themselves on guard against being instruments of the unnecessary, unwarranted humiliation of a worker by an angry crowd of workmates. To all mental-health professionals I recommend the article published in Current Psychiatry last year by James Randolph Hillard entitled, “Workplace mobbing: are they really out to get your patient?”
In the most practical vein, I recommend that to any workplace conflict a consulting psychologist is called upon to assess, he or she systematically apply the standard checklist of sixteen indicators for determining empirically whether a mobbing is underway. The checklist list is included also on the WAMI handout, “The Waterloo Anti-mobbing Instruments.” The consulting psychologist might want to be attentive in particular to the following five items on the checklist:
Indicator #1, "By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average." The consultant normally has access to the vitas or resumés of the members of the work-unit. Is there one who has aroused the ire of workmates, attracted widespread hostility, but who nonetheless appears on paper to excel at his or her job? Do workmates demean this person's achievements?
Indicator #2, "Rumours and gossip circulate about the target’s misdeeds: 'Did you hear what she did last week?'" If a mobbing is underway, a consultant may discover that one name keeps coming up in interviews with members of the work unit, along with off-the-record slurs and stories. The naive consultant will conclude, "Aha! Now I know who the problem is." The educated consultant will raise the question, "Might scapegoating be the problem here?"
Indicator #3, "The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self." From interviews and documentation, it is seldom hard for the consultant to see if some member of the work unit is isolated from ongoing administrative processes. Estrangement between the many and the one is signaled equally by the claim, "She doesn't want to be involved," as by the claim, "Nobody wants to work with her."
Indicator #7, "Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications." The worker being mobbed or scapegoated has not just differed with colleagues but rankled them, gotten under their skin, grated on their nerves. A perceptive consultant can usually detect this from the fervid words and body language colleagues can scarcely help showing when this person's name comes up.
Indicator #12, "The target is seen as personally abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied." This indicator goes to the heart of what workplace mobbing means. It is not normal office politics, in which colleagues haggle over conflicting priorities, policies, and procedures, but abnormal politics, in which the overriding goal becomes ridding the workplace of the local pariah (nutbar, bully, predator, scoundrel, rogue, or whatever he or she is called).
I conclude with what my home university, Waterloo in Canada, has wisely designated the first cardinal principle for our workplace: “Focus on the situation, issue, orbehaviour, not the person.” The more faithful we are to this principle, the more constructive, productive, and decent our own workplace behaviour will be, and the less likely we are to take part in the destructive process of mobbing, which directly defies this principle.
Mark A. Schneider
In the special issue of CPJ on mobbing and bullying, Patricia Ferris wrote (61:3, p. 169) that: " Consulting psychologists have the expertise to provide…interventions [in cases of mobbing and bullying] because of their in-depth understanding of personality, testing, and assessment, and the application of these concepts to selection, coaching, and performance management. The consulting psychologist brings an attention to human factors that humanize the workplace."
From our perspective, this statement should be seen as aspirational rather than as a statement of fact. As indicated earlier, the special issue of CPJ scanted mobbing to concentrate more on bullying, and we have yet to see much evidence that consulting psychologists have developed an adequate grasp of the difficulties involved in intervening in a mobbing. Indeed, the second section of this paper suggests a cavalier attitude underlain by no “expertise” at all. Our hope is that the Division of Consulting Psychology will further research and then work to remedy this situation, should the research so warrant. We note that there is no mention of mobbing or bullying in the APA’s Guidelines for Education and Training at the Doctoral and Postdoctoral Levels in Consulting Psychology/Organizational Consulting Psychology (American Psychologist, 2007, pp. 980-992). Further, though the Guidelines indicate that “Professional ethics and standards compliance is considered as a pervasive, general competency in the CP/OCP guidelines model” (2007, p. 984), this compliance needs to extend beyond the model into the thought and actions of an important and prestigious segment of the field.
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