K. Westhues homepage

Workplace Mobbing in Academe

Test yourself:

Is It Bullying or Mobbing

That Interests You More?

Kenneth Westhues, Department of Sociology, University of Waterloo, 2007

Bullying vs. Mobbing: a Difference of Priorities and Outlook

While some researchers of workplace conflict treat bullying and mobbing as synonyms, most acknowledge that the two words point to different kinds of aggression. Bullying suggests a physically belligerent, hostile, overbearing individual, usually a manager, who takes pleasure in lording it over one or more subordinates. Mobbing connotes a number of ordinary workers at whatever level who unfairly gang up on a manager, peer, or subordinate, tormenting the person in usually nonviolent ways.

Both forms of aggression are worth studying, since both do serious harm to the person or people targeted, as well as to the overall climate of social relations and the quality and productivity of the workplace.

The difference between bullying and mobbing runs deeper, however, than the kinds of aggression the words point to. The difference extends also to different priorities for workplace relations, even different outlooks on life.

Here is a true story of workplace conflict (actually a composite, with identifying information omitted) that I tell in my classes. My students vary in which of the parties they sympathize with. As you read the story here, ask yourself where your own sympathies lie. After the story, I will suggest what can be inferred from your answer for which of the two problems, bullying or mobbing, concerns you more.

A Case of Workplace Conflict in Health Care

The story is set in the maternity ward of a community hospital. A woman at full term has gone into labor. She is in the delivery room. The baby's birth is imminent. The woman's husband is with her, standing at the head of the bed holding her hand and comforting her. At the foot of the bed is the obstetrician, coaching and encouraging, saying when to push and when to take deep breaths. To his left and a little behind him is the nurse. She stands beside a tray of instruments. The delivery is proceeding normally.

As the baby begins to come out, the doctor is poised to receive it in his hands. Without looking back at the nurse, he asks her for something on the tray — a towel, clamp, whatever — and holds out his left hand to receive it. Nothing is placed in his hand.

He turns to his left. He sees that the nurse has left the room.

He himself grabs whatever he was asking for. The delivery is successful. The doctor places the newborn on its mother's breast. The parents are overwhelmed with joy.

The doctor excuses himself for a moment, steps out of the delivery room, quickly finds another nurse and asks her to give the newborn standard postnatal care. He asks this nurse what happened to the one who was assisting him. She answers that the first nurse's shift ended and she went home.

The doctor says nothing to the second nurse, nor to the new parents, but he is outraged that the first nurse walked out in the middle of the delivery. He considers her action the height of irresponsibility, especially because she did not even tell him she was leaving. Had there been a last-minute problem, her abrupt departure could have endangered the baby's or the mother's life.

As the doctor is entering the hospital the next morning, he happens to pass this nurse in the corridor.

"I have something to say to you," he tells her. She stops. Her back is against the corridor wall. He is standing in front of her, close enough that she feels uncomfortable. He wags his finger at her and says quietly, "If you ever walk out on a delivery again, I will have your ass fired." Then he walks on.

Later that day, this doctor and nurse are again working together on some procedure. Things go smoothly, There are no harsh words. The doctor makes a silly joke. The nurse smiles.

The doctor gives no further thought to the incident. It is in his memory, of course, as are his words to the nurse, but he does not expect she will repeat the misconduct for which he reprimanded her.

The nurse, however, has been traumatized by the doctor's misconduct. She is deeply upset, terrified at the thought of losing her job. Other staff were in the corridor when she was scolded. They probably saw the doctor shaking his finger at her, and guessed that she was being chewed out. She feels abused and publicly shamed.

It was not as if she left the delivery room on a whim. She had to leave promptly at the end of her shift, as always on that day of the week, to pick up her two pre-schoolers from daycare. She is a single mother living in a creepy townhouse, driving a rustbucket of a car, and dealing day after day with the stress of juggling childcare and career.

The nurse is so angry and depressed she cannot sleep that night, then loses her temper with her children the next morning, as she gets them ready and hustles them out the door for the ride to the daycare centre.

The nurse shares her concerns with two co-workers, also nurses. They commiserate with her. They have stories of their own to tell about the doctor in question. He is known to be gruff with hospital staff and to have low tolerance for mistakes, as if the whole world should revolve around his patients. The co-workers urge the nurse to consult with the grievance officer of the staff union, and assure her they will testify as witnesses on her behalf if the dispute ends up in a formal hearing.

The grievance officer is also sympathetic to the nurse's complaint. In his view, it is one more example of the unfair treatment routinely inflicted on union members by doctors and administrators. The collective agreement clearly forbids requiring staff to work overtime on short notice. It also forbids abusive and threatening language. It spells out clear procedures through the chain of command if a physician wants to complain about a nurse. The procedures do not include angry, public confrontation in a hospital corridor.

In the course of explaining what happened to the grievance officer, the nurse breaks down in tears, saying over and over, "I can't go on like this." The grievance officer suggests she go immediately for medical help. Her physician prescribes a mild antidepressant and places her on stress leave for the rest of the week.

At a meeting on an unrelated matter with the hospital CEO a few days later, the grievance officer mentions that a grievance may soon be filed over abuse of a nurse by a physician. The grievance officer is careful not to identify the parties, but the CEO can guess who they are, since gossip about the incident in the corridor has already reached him. The CEO listens to the grievance officer impassively, but he thinks to himself that he will not likely go to bat for the accused in this case. This doctor is not a team player. He has challenged the CEO in staff meetings over alleged laxity in standards of patient care. He needs to be taught a lesson, taken down a notch.

The grievance policy requires that a formal grievance be filed not later that two weeks after the event being grieved. Just before the deadline, the physician picks up from his mailbox a letter marked "confidential" from the union president. It indicates that copies have been sent to the nurse-complainant, the grievance officer, the director of nursing, the CEO, and the chief of medical staff. The letter states the complaint against him, that he abused, intimidated and threatened a nurse by word and gesture in a public corridor, using obscene and derisive language, and causing her emotional distress serious enough to require medical treatment. The letter also states the complainant's desired remedy: a formal apology from the doctor, and an appropriate penalty for him to be determined by the CEO, in keeping with principles of progressive discipline.

An arbitration for resolving the grievance is scheduled at the soonest possible date, which turns out to be six weeks ahead. Meanwhile, pending resolution of the grievance, the CEO suspends the physician's hospital privileges in accordance with policy requiring proactive intervention to safeguard staff from potential threats to their health and safety.

What Your Sympathies Imply for Your Approach to Workplace Conflict

If, having read this story, you find yourself sympathizing mainly with the nurse, you are probably more interested in the problem of workplace bullying. What leapt out at you in the narrative, the key fact of the case, was the doctor's verbal attack on the nurse in the corridor and the distress it caused.

If your sympathies are mainly with the doctor, you are probably more interested in the problem of workplace mobbing. What struck you most about the story, the key fact of the case, was that the nurse walked out in the middle of a baby's birth, and then joined with others in an attack on the doctor who reprimanded her, involving at minimum a six-week disruption of his practice.

Here are seven pervasive themes in the research literature on workplace bullying:
(1) The nub of the problem is a cruel, overbearing individual who makes life miserable for one or more subordinates or co-workers;
(2) Bullies and victims may be of either sex, but the stereotypical bully is male (the doctor in this story) and the stereotypical victim is female (the nurse);
(3) Bullying is usually an overstepping or abuse of authority (the higher-status doctor uses his power over the lower-status nurse to tyrannize her);
(4) Bullying is an infringement of a worker's rights (the point about overtime), a denial of the human dignity guaranteed by legislation, human rights codes, and collective agreements;
(5) In any organization, the chain of command must be respected, and complaints made through proper channels (as opposed to taking matters in one's own hands, as the doctor did in the story);
(6) The bully's attacks may involve formal punishment but usually consist mainly of hurtful, abusive verbal attacks that damage the target's self-esteem and emotional equilibrium, leading to a breakdown of health;
(7) What defines the bullying is above all the target's experience, his or her perception of deep, demeaning hostility from the bully.

Here are seven corresponding themes in the research literature on workplace mobbing:
(1) The nub of the problem is the ganging up of workers to demonize, humiliate, and scapegoat a target who has done little if anything wrong;
(2) Mobbers and targets may be of either sex, but women are often over-represented among mobbers, whether the target is male or female;
(3) The target of mobbing usually excels in his or her work, sets high standards for both self and others (like the doctor in this story):
(4) Mobbing diminishes the quality of work (in this example, a doctor trying to ensure safe childbirth ends up being punished);
(5) Most problems that arise in a workplace can be solved by workers themselves, without managerial intervention (in this story, the doctor warned the nurse privately, instead of reporting her to her supervisor);
(6) The mob's attack has an informal aspect (like gossip and shunning), but consists mainly of official sanctions (like suspension of the doctor's hospital privileges):
(7) The mobbing is defined not by anybody's personal feelings but by the facts of what happened (nurse walks out on delivery, doctor scolds her for it, and so on).

For Further Insight into Your Reaction to the Story

This story helps clarify the reader's outlook and priorities on work not only because it is based on actual events but also because, like most workplace conflicts, it is not clear-cut. Most readers can see both the doctor's and the nurse's sides. Sure, the nurse should not have walked out on the delivery, but neither should the doctor have accosted her in the corridor.

To become further aware of your own thinking, ask yourself how your sympathies might shift if the story were slightly different. Suppose:
(1) That the nurse had asked her supervisor in advance not to be assigned to this delivery, on account of having to leave immediately at the end of her shift; or
(2) That the nurse had arranged with another nurse to replace her in the delivery room a little before the end of her shift, but the other nurse forgot; or
(3) That the nurse had said before she left, "My shift is over and I have to leave, so I'm going out to find somebody to replace me here"; or
(4) That when the doctor confronted the nurse in the corridor, he yelled at her so that others could hear, "You are a worthless bitch who has no business working in this hospital; I intend to have your ass thrown out of here"; or
(5) That the doctor had a long record of storming angrily at others, including his own patients, possibly to cover up his own mistakes.

Under any or all of these five conditions, the doctor's berating of the nurse would seem less justified, and most observers would be more concerned about his bullying.

Contrariwise, ask yourself how the following other possible differences in the story might alter how you would characterize the conflict. Suppose:
(1) That other nurses and doctors had complained that this nurse and her friends were uncaring and lackadaisical, and that this was the third formal complaint she had made in the past year that somebody was bullying her; or
(2) That the doctor was a woman and the nurse was a young single man who walked out on the delivery to meet friends in a bar; or
(3) That the board of trustees was on the brink of firing the CEO on grounds that he failed to maintain proper standards of patient care; or
(4) That when the doctor confronted the nurse in the corridor, he said, "If you ever walk out on a delivery again, I will feel obliged to file a complaint against you with the Director of Nursing"; or
(5) That there had been last-minute complications in the delivery, and that on account of the nurse's absence, the baby almost died.

Under any or all of these five conditions, the collective action against the doctor would seem less justified, and most observers would be more concerned about his (or her) being mobbed.


In an ideal world, the doctor and the nurse in the story would have met to discuss how to prevent the problem happening again, by more flexible scheduling, better communication, advance planning, or some other way. Moving directly to formal arbitration of the grievance and interim suspension of the doctor's hospital privileges was clearly premature. A skilled CEO or director of nursing might have mediated between doctor and nurse, smoothed things over, validated the concerns of both parties, and renewed both parties' commitment to patients' health and well-being.

But we do not live in an ideal world. Humans sometimes behave badly, with resultant upheavals in workplaces of all kinds, hospitals not least. Researchers of workplace conflict try to produce knowledge that fits the facts and points toward better ways of doing things. Certain cases of conflict can only be described as bullying. Others are clearly mobbing. Very many can be described with either word, depending on the researcher's or observer's outlook and priorities.

As is plain from this website, my interest is mainly workplace mobbing. In the story told above, I see three regrettable events. First, a nurse walks out on her job at a critical moment. Second, a doctor accosts her in the corridor on that account. Third, the nurse, her friends, the union, and the CEO mount a concerted attack on the doctor's position and name: they mob him. I count this the most regrettable, amazing, and horrifying event of the three, partially because of the harm done to him, but mainly because of the damage to what should be the hospital's top priority. I would not want any woman to give birth or any baby to be born in a hospital that puts staff feelings ahead of patients' health.

In the view of some commentators, overconcern with workplace bullying (mobbing, too, in so far as it involves hurt feelings) has relegated to the sidelines what should be front and centre in any workplace: getting the work done well. In 2006, a large award by a British court to a victim of harassment by co-workers sparked intense debate over who, in fact, got taken advantage of by whom. In his 2007 essay on "The Hypersensitive Workplace." David Butcher argues that there is an important line, however elusive, between rudeness and harassment, support and handholding. In a trenchant entry on his Scientific Misconduct Blog, Aubrey Blumsohn laments a situation where "civility, decorum and status" displace genuine ethics.

Research and public concern about both bullying and mobbing will doubtless continue, and so will a certain difference of "feel" between the two fields of inquiry. Scholars who prefer to talk about bullying will continue to be a little wary of those who prefer to talk about mobbing, and vice versa. This webpage has been intended to clarify the reasons for that wariness, and to help readers situate themselves in the debate.