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Dec 5, 2013

An extraordinarily dimwitted New York business owner will have to shell out at least $250,000 for hurling the n-word at his employee during a reported “four-minute rant.”

The owner, himself black, apparently thought this would be OK.


The story showed up in a LinkedIn group, where a white member wanted to know why it’s unacceptable for white people to use the n-word when so many black people use it so freely.

(Now bear with me. I promise you this posting is not about to devolve into a tirade about crappy U.S. race relations. We’ll be back in a corporate office in one New York minute. Honest.)

35% of workers have experienced bullying directly

So, I tried to explain why to this member, but it was obvious from his responses that he wasn’t listening. And his lack of listening felt like a dismissal of the realities of the very people whom he purported to want to understand with his inquiry.

And that reminded me of a fabulous conversation I had this week with Dr. Maureen Duffy, a family therapist and author of Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Work-place Aggression and Bullying. (And we’re back. See? I told you.)

The book is planned for release in late December, and I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of friend to the HR community if I didn’t recommend that each and every practitioner read this book. It is wonderful.

According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35 percent of American workers have experienced bullying directly. I’m in that percentage. I’ve been mobbed and bullied, so I know first-hand the destructive effects of this phenomenon.

But what is mobbing, how does it differ from bullying, and what the heck does any of it have to do with that bone-headed manager in New York and the guy who’s upset that white people can still get in trouble for using the n-word?

All of those are very good questions (if I don’t say so myself), and the answers as are follows.

Mobbing vs. Bullying

In her book, Dr. Duffy provides a clear distinction between bullying and mobbing. In a nutshell, mobbing takes an organization, and bullying does not.

Generally, bullying involves one or more bullies who abuse an individual without the weight and the backing, if you will, of the organization. An individual is mobbed, however, with the sanction and often active cooperation of senior leadership.

When an employee is mobbed, the objective is to remove him from the organization, but not through any reasonable means. Instead, the employee/target is marginalized within the organization through a process known as “de-legitimization,” which systemically strips the target of his professional accomplishments and his personal dignity.

The target, once lauded as a valuable employee, is now regarded as dirt. He is gossiped about. Lied about. Shut out from meetings. Dropped from memo distribution lists.

A wicked and cruel practice

In short, he is treated as a non-member of the organization and then is either fired or quits while the mob cheers.

What’s particularly disturbing about mobbing is that the target’s performance is never the real issue. Instead, his “otherness,” relative to the culture of the organization, is the catalyst for the abuse. (I’m telling you, read the book.)

While mobbing may (and often does) include some bullying behavior, it is much more than bullying, which in and of itself can be devastating.

Mobbing is wicked and cruel and happens far too often than we’d like to admit.

And now I’m back to that white guy who doesn’t want to listen.

“We have seen the enemy …”

Because that’s us, HR ladies and gentlemen, when we’re confronted by a hurting and confused target of bullying or mobbing in the workplace. We’re the ones who aren’t listening. We ask a question as though we really care to hear the answer, but then we don’t actually listen up.

A 2007 study sponsored by WBI and conducted by Zogby Research Services found that 44 percent of the time employers did nothing when bullying was reported, and 18 percent of the time the employer made the situation worse.

Whether our fingers-in-the-ears routine is fueled by a knee jerk reaction to protect our employers, a lack of empathy, a lack of knowledge, stubbornness, inexperience, fear, all of that, none of that, or something else entirely, it’s a problem that needs correcting, and fast.

I’m an optimist. I wouldn’t be an HR professional if I weren’t. I believe that people and organizations can change for the better.

But when it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, truly, I feel like weeping. The situation looks pretty hopeless.

But change IS possible

And so I asked Dr. Duffy, “How can organizations that are so dysfunctional as to allow this type of behavior in the first place ever be open to change?”

And she told me she’s an optimist, too — that she couldn’t be a therapist if she weren’t. And that one way change can come is if HR professionals start listening, and If HR professionals be what she called a “wedge.”

That thin wedge disrupts the workplace culture just a tad, just enough to get somebody else to listen. Without preconceived notions. Without a belief that certain things just can’t be true. Without a belief that it’s okay to mistreat a fellow worker.

Dr. Duffy believes that the Healthy Workplace Bill will eventually pass within the various states, and I sure hope she’s right and that I live to see it.

Most of us will spend many, many hours of our lives at work. Work is meaningful. Work brings a sense of community and belonging. Work shouldn’t hurt. (Yes, cliché and all, I went there.)

Vow to make the situation better

As HR professionals, we talk a lot about making a positive impact on our organizations and being seen as partners and such. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is one area in which we can make a huge impact, if we can find the courage to do it.

Workplace aggression costs millions in legal fees, turnover, unscheduled absences, direct medical costs, and the costs of workplace accidents caused by stress. It hurts workers and organizations.

So the next time you’re presented with a complaint about workplace bullying or some other form of aggression, please listen, and then vow to do something that makes the situation better and not worse — for all our sakes.

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