Workplace Mobbing
in Academe



K. Westhues homepage



The Latest: 2018

Report on recent advances and applications

Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo
Online publication, July 2018

Between 2002, when I first launched my personal website, and 2016, I published online about 75 articles and research reports on workplace mobbing, especially in universities, and brief descriptions of about a dozen books I had published on the same topic. All these items remain online. The great majority are my own writing. Some are the work of fellow researchers in this line of inquiry.

My rate of producing new articles and books and adding them to the website has fallen off over the past few years. The purpose of this posting is to explain why and provide an update.

The research literature grows steadily

The good news is that research on mobbing in academe and beyond has continued apace, with scholars in diverse disciplines making fresh and varied contributions to the scientific study of this extraordinary form of workplace conflict. All you have to do is search for “mobbing” or “workplace mobbing” or “academic mobbing” on Google, Google Scholar, or in journal indexes. You will quickly find yourself overwhelmed with citations. Here are some authors of noteworthy recent publications in English: Maureen Duffy, David Yamada, Theodore W. McDonald, Jan Gregersen, Eugenie Samier, Kathleen Z. Young, Mpho M. Pheko, and David Schmitt, among many others.

I am unable to keep up with recent scholarship in most other languages, but I’m delighted to be a Far-North tangential member of the network of mobbing researchers in Latin America led by anthropologist Florencia Peña and her colleagues at the National University in Mexico City. She and  Karla Fernández are editors of the comprehensive compilation, Mobbing en la academia mexicana (2016). A major figure in that network is the psychologist, Sergio Navarrete Vázquez, who continues his work of translating into Spanish and annotating the key contributions of Heinz Leymann, myself and others; these translations are available online in the Spanish-language section of my own website, in a 2016 book from Mellen Press, and in a further book to be released by Ediciones Eón in Mexico.

Two trenchant new overviews of research on mobbing

During the past couple of years, two excellent, concise, state-of-the-art articles on mobbing in universities have appeared in major periodicals and are freely accessible online. Each is enhanced by dozens of thoughtful comments from readers. First is Eve Seguin, Academic mobbing, or how to become campus tormentors, University Affairs (19 September 2016; en français ici). A political scientist at the Montreal campus of the University of Quebec, Seguin has authored a series of hard-hitting analyses of this form of conflict and its implications for academic life (ici et ici).

The other highly recommended overview is even newer: Brad Cran, The academic mob and its fatal toll, Quillette (2 March 2018). It is an exceptionally fluent article, true to its author’s record as a writer and his stint as Vancouver's Poet Laureate. Quillette, which has become a major outlet for fresh thinking about science and public affairs since Claire Lehmann founded it three years ago, has subsequently published illuminating case studies of mobbing by Debra Soh, an analysis of Bret Weinstein’s ouster from Evergreen State College in Washington, and by Cran himself, a study of the collective attack on Steven Galloway at the University of British Columbia.

Applying existing knowledge to cases outside academe

I appreciate and respect the colleagues named above and many more who now sustain, broaden, and deepen the research literature on workplace mobbing. My gratitude runs deep to the many first-rate scholars who continue the project that Heinz Leymann laid the foundation for and that Noa Zanolli, Sue Baxter, and I, among others, carried on after his death in 1999.

For my part, I have done little in recent years to enlarge the body of general knowledge. Mainly, I have been applying existing knowledge to specific cases. Most of these are surgeons in Canadian hospitals on whom colleagues and administrators have ganged up, and who now face suspension from their work and eventual elimination from hospital staffs – all this for no demonstrably good reason. Trying to understand the threatened termination of vocation, career, and livelihood, the surgeon (or a friend or family member) has typically searched online, come across the mobbing research, and self-diagnosed as a target of this destructive process. Then the surgeon, usually through a lawyer, has asked me to review the relevant documentation and write an expert assessment of the conflict in light of the mobbing research. I have declined most such requests, sometimes for lack of time, more often because the evidence did not support the mobbing conceptualization, but I have taken on about ten such expert-witness assignments since 2014. Each one involved sifting through a mountain of documentation, sometimes enough to fill a banker’s box.

Preparing and writing these expert-witness reports has been generally satisfying, even if time-consuming and sometimes depressing. I have looked at each pile of documentation as a puzzle to solve, a mass of data about a workplace conflict crying out for analysis, explanation, and an empirically sound suggestion for how to set things right. Meeting that intellectual challenge, solving the puzzle in a reasoned way, is its own reward. Further, in almost all cases, the targeted surgeon has found insight and solace in my analysis, assurance that he or she is not crazy or incompetent, instead a casualty of a scientifically identified social process wherein the target’s failings are exaggerated and the punishments extreme. Finally, while the outcomes of the conflicts I have analyzed vary, it has not been unreasonable to hope that once the conflict is viewed in a broader context (by a court, for instance, or some other quasi-judicial body outside the workplace wherein passions are inflamed), my analysis facilitates by its accuracy and truthfulness some kind of constructive outcome.

I also continue to consult informally, so far as time permits, with the very many self-identified mobbing targets who write to me about the research. They come from all walks of life. I am able to answer most inquiries, albeit briefly. For want of sufficient information from all sides of the conflict at issue, I can never say anything conclusive and my comments are always tentative, but I am enriched by these first-person stories and glad to weigh in on the side of truth, honesty, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, an ethic of live and let live – values in which I try to anchor my scholarship. Occasionally, a person with lived experience of what seems to be workplace mobbing writes an insightful account for publication. A good example is Ron Russell, a retired RCMP officer committed to the prevention and remedy of workplace mobbing in police services.

In this same category of mobbing cases outside academe is a dramatic, graphic instance in my home city of Niagara Falls, Canada. I watched the Council meeting of 13 June 2017 out of civic interest. Research on mobbing was not on my mind until, for 57 minutes, a ritual of extreme degradation unfolded before my eyes. The target was a Councillor named Carolynn Ioannoni. The mobbers were her fellow Councillors, along with the Mayor and senior municipal officials. The horrifying ritual remains online for all the world to see. It runs from 3:15 to 4:12 on the video, and is summarized on p. 5 of the minutes. Months later, after the Mayor and the targeted Councillor argued in the Niagara Falls Review about whether or not she had been mobbed, I circulated an open letter answering the question from the disinterested viewpoint of the research literature. It is good news that at this writing, July 2018, nearly all the Councillors who ganged up on Ioannoni appear ready to backtrack.

Steering shy of the cases that matter most

What I have not done in recent years is say much publicly about those mobbing cases of greatest public importance, namely those rooted directly in the moral panic over sex and race, the biopolitical fever that continues to plague American, Canadian, and Western culture in general. I have said a little: an essay in 2012 about how the prevailing postmodern mentality encourages mob behavior; and commentary in 2015 on the scandal in dentistry at Dalhousie University. The Chronicle of Higher Education included comments from me in 2018 in its coverage of the campaigns against Gopal Balakrishnan at the University of California at Santa Clara, and against Florian Jaeger at the University of Rochester. In the main, I have held my tongue on the rampant mobbings all over North America borne from panic over sexism, sexual harassment, racism, racial discrimination, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and so on – the obsessions of the postmodern left, the #MeToo movement in particular.

Part of the reason is disinterest on both the right and (especially) the left in even-handed critiques of mob behaviour, as if the majority of opinion leaders are so eager to pillory their enemies they recoil from anybody finding fault with the pillory itself. Indeed, Seguin has called mobbing a taboo subject. In 2016, a respectable right-wing periodical invited from me an essay on mobbing. I tried to be balanced and gentle in my submission. The editor, clearly displeased, insisted on changes that would give the piece a rightward tilt. I withdrew the submission. We parted as friends. Not wanting to waste the work of writing the essay, I polished it a little and submitted it to a more academic periodical, leftist but generally temperate. The editor accepted my submission, said she looked forward to “working with me” on it. I took that as a bad omen but sent a cordial reply of thanks and said I looked forward to hearing from her further. She never got back to me.

The main reasons I have not tried harder to intrude the research on mobbing into current culture wars are (1) horror at how brazen, cocksure, and unrestrained are very many mobbing eruptions in these wars, and (2) doubt that anything I say will make any difference. In the hospital cases of mobbing that have preoccupied me in recent years, cases typically rooted in local issues, I have discerned at least an outside chance that the mob would be turned back by some higher authority removed from local passions – the hospital CEO or board, for instance, the provincial medical college, or a court of law – or even by the power of the press. In many mobbing cases arising from postmodern panics over sex and race, by contrast, the higher authorities and mass media are themselves caught up in the zealotry. They, too, think too little and feel too much. It is as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about the witch hunts of his time: “the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.”

The case of Judge Camp

A much publicized case of workplace mobbing that caught my attention and left a deep impression on me was the one targeted on Robin Camp, a judge of the criminal court in Alberta. This was an instance of lateral or collegial mobbing. The mobbers were mainly law professors, lawyers, and fellow judges, though journalists and politicians played major parts. At issue was Judge Camp’s conduct of a rape trial in 2014, at which he had acquitted the accused young man. The verdict itself was not the basis of complaint. Indeed, after the Crown appealed the verdict, the boy was tried a second time by a different judge, and was again found not guilty.

Meanwhile, however, four law professors filed a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council about Judge Camp’s alleged “sexist and disrespectful treatment of the complainant in the case, and his disregard for the law applicable to sexual assault.” Dozens of other champions of women’s rights signed on. What sparked the firestorm in particular was that Judge Camp had asked the accuser why she couldn’t just keep her knees together. Press reports described him over and over as the “knees-together judge." This and a few other quotations, lifted out of context, were seen as conclusive evidence of the judge’s unfitness for his job. An article in Vice described him as misogynistic, a “rape myth propagator,” and “totally incompetent.” In 2017, the Judicial Council recommended that Parliament remove Judge Camp from the bench – just the third time in its 45-year history that it had made such a recommendation. At that point, Judge Camp resigned.

At the personal level, the horrific nature of mobbing varies little by job status. Humiliation and loss feel much the same to a line worker as to a judge. At the societal level, however, the mobbing of a judge is worse. This is because to do their jobs well, judges have to be insulated from public and peer pressure. That is why they enjoy by law more job security than just about anybody else. The downside of this is obvious to anyone familiar with the courts: occasional judges who are lazy, biased, ignorant, inattentive, drunk, senile, or otherwise unfit, but who nonetheless stay on the bench. Hence when a judge is actually ousted, a reasonable person asks why. Judge Camp was ousted for no good reason, instead because his acquittal of an accused rapist and a few of his comments during the trial unleashed the fury of a fanatic, feminist mob.

Pat Flynn, lawyer for the accused, made an important point about Judge Camp after his client’s re-acquittal by a different judge in the second trial: “I don't want to be flippant on this, but would you rather have your judge make the right decision, and say something inappropriate, or to be politically correct and get the wrong decision?” Flynn is right. Surely those many Canadian judges who have convicted obviously innocent defendants, or acquitted obviously guilty ones, should be, in the line for ouster, far ahead of judges like Robin Camp, who spoke some ill-chosen words in the midst of arriving at the correct verdict.

Thankfully, the full transcript of the trial that was Judge Camp's undoing remains available online. It should be read word for word from start to finish by anybody intending to offer an opinion on any of those involved. By my reading, it shows a gentlemanly judge put off balance, rattled and flustered by the cheap, sordid, raw licentiousness of the subculture out of which the rape accusation arose: a group of young, not very bright, strung out street people at a party, most of them drunk or high, with criminal records for assault, shoplifting, and sundry other offenses. There was sex aplenty before and after the alleged rape: oral, genital, making out, indecent exposure, getting it up and not being able to, watching, being watched, successive partners, crushes, jealousies. Judge Camp was criticized afterwards for having several times mixed up the words complainant and defendant. That was understandable. The complainant kept mixing up central and consensual. By rough count, the word fuck appears 83 times in the transcript, vagina 84 times, lick 54 times, penis 50 times, eating her out 10 times, and pussy 10 times – you get the idea. The transcript could pass for pornography.

What distressed me was how few were the voices dissenting from the campaign to oust Judge Camp. Christie Blatchford at The National Post was one of the few mainstream pundits who raised questions. Diana Davison, a non-mainstream voice, posted an incisive YouTube commentary, “The Incredible Case of Robin Camp.” So did Clary Jaxon; hers is entitled, “The Re-Education of Judge Robin Camp: Feminists Descend Upon Judge to Change His Logical Ways.” Barbara Hewson, a British barrister, published a sensible analysis of Camp’s ordeal in the online journal, spiked. But these were the exceptions. Most journalists in Canada jumped on the bandwagon to eliminate the judge. Before doing so with such abandon, they might have looked for sexism and disrespect in Judge Camp’s words to the accuser at the start of the trial:

This lady who is the Crown prosecutor, will ask you questions, then that gentleman who is the accused's lawyer will ask you questions, perhaps harder questions, then this lady is allowed to ask some follow-up questions and I may ask you some questions if I'm puzzled about something. You have certain rights here too, if you get tired you're allowed to ask for a break, if you need a break, the washroom or you're feeling sugar low, something like that, you're allowed to say you need a break. [Accuser: Okay.]
            If you don't understand something, you're allowed to say you don't understand, if you didn't hear properly, you're allowed to say that, very important. If you don't know the answer to a question or if you've forgotten, please say so. All we ask is that you tell us the truth as far as you remember it. You don't get into trouble for forgetting something or not knowing the answer, or not understanding the question. [Accuser: Yes.]
            We'll – unless you need a break, we'll probably go for an hour, an hour and a quarter and then have a coffee break. [Accuser: Okay.]
            But as I say, if you need a break you're allowed to say so, and do you have any questions? [Accuser: Not at the moment, Sir.]

Two lessons from the case of Judge Camp

A very practical lesson for targets from the successful mobbing of Judge Camp is never to apologize for anything when a mob has formed against you. An apology has the same effect on a workplace mob as the scent of blood has on a pack of hounds: it fuels the predation. This is contrary to how one should behave in normal circumstances. Owning up to faults and mistakes, saying “I’m sorry,” is essential to civilized life. But the mobbing circumstance is neither normal nor civilized. The mob seeks humiliation, not reconciliation. Any admission of wrongdoing, deficiency or error by the target is seized upon as justification for further attack, proof of the target’s rottenness.

If Judge Camp had dug in his heels, declared himself proud of his conduct of the trial, urged critics to study the transcript in its entirety and await the upholding of his verdict on appeal, he might well still be on the bench. Instead, he fell all over himself apologizing, confessing gaps in his knowledge, groveling before his accusers, and pledging to re-educate himself. All this only made his situation worse. Knowledge of research on mobbing, in particular the well-established finding that apologies are generally self-defeating, could have helped him save his skin.

The second lesson I draw from the mobbing of Judge Camp is mainly for myself: that when a case is rooted in a moral panic that has captured even the highest authorities of a society, trying to talk sense to people is like yelling at the wind or spitting into it. It pains me to say this. There is truth in Edmond Burke’s dictum, that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. On the other hand, through my research these past twenty years, I have seen many brave men and women lose everything – money, job, family, friends, health, even life itself – fighting battles they might have known they could not win.

Toward the future

I have on occasion tried to lift the spirits of fellow researchers of mobbing who, like me, get depressed and discouraged by the intractability of destructive human impulses. “Nobody promised us a rose garden,” I intone, preaching to myself as much as anyone.

Fundamentally, I’m grateful to have been able to study and write about workplace mobbing these past twenty years. My conviction remains firm that a science of this and other forms of conflict is a worthy pursuit, that it will in the long run be to good effect. So long as I am able, I plan to continue doing and applying this science in one way or another. Like Voltaire, I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom.