Mobbed, but Thriving

Janice Harper, PhD, Author of Mobbed!

Janice Harper was a successful anthropologist, an assistant professor teaching and doing research at the University of Tennessee, when her promising career was ended by mobbing. She had established herself as an expert on health and environment and initiated a graduate program in Human Rights. When her own rights were threatened at work, she reported concerns about an employee’s conduct toward her and other women. Instead of receiving a fair hearing and protection, she was mobbed by university administrators and junior faculty, even including her friends and colleagues. Eventually the Faculty Senate found that the university had broken their own rules and destroyed her career and owed Harper compensation. Harper filed a lawsuit, and in an out-of-court settlement, she received a six-figure compensation, but the university admitted no fault.

After covering legal expenses, Harper found herself nearly destitute, an unemployable professional, a single parent with a child, exiled from her own profession, and suffering from stress. Through bitter personal experience, she learned how being shunned and ostracized is so destructive. "It affects our sense of belonging, our self-esteem or sense of self worth, our sense of control over our lives, and our sense of having a meaningful existence."

But she proved strong and resourceful, and has created a new career as a nationally-published author on workplace aggression and other topics, published in Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.

In order to " targets of group aggression find a safer and saner way to cope and overcome the brutality of bullying, mobbing and shunning," she wrote a book on mobbing. In it, Harper provides a perceptive analysis of aggressive group processes and how they interact with individual psychology and institutional settings. The book comprises an excellent review of human interaction patterns leading to mobbing, an analysis of the conditions faced by a mobbing victim in the workplace, and extensive practical advice to enable a victim to survive and avoid becoming a permanent victim. Harper presents essential down-to-earth guidance on how targets of mobbing can protect themselves emotionally, socially, and professionally.

Harper argues that conventional ideas about how to deal with bullying by individuals are worse than ineffective when dealing with mobbing, and she regrets having followed those ideas when trying to defend herself—group psychology operates very differently from individual psychology. In mobbing, it is not about the bullies, it is about a group. The conventional advice is to punish and mob the alleged bully, which is only pitting one mob against another, and does not solve the problem. While she was struggling to protect herself from mobbing, Harper was teaching about organizational cultures, warfare, and genocide. She realized that mobbing and genocide are two forms of aggression by a group against members of the same group. The psychology of genocide is similar to that of mobbing in the workplace, despite the vast differences in scope and outcome.

Targeting and victimizing

Harper helps us to see clearly the parallels to mobbing in multifamily housing and the workplace as well as situations of genocide or ethnic cleansing in many kinds of community.

  • a person is viewed as fundamentally different and a threat to power;
  • they are targeted for elimination;
  • their difference is communicated to others;
  • that difference signals they are inferior to the rest of the community;
  • they are increasingly excluded from the social sphere and strategic resources;
  • they are called names to dehumanize them (making it easier to harm them).

The rest of the [community] learns that they could become targets themselves if they align with the target, but could benefit if they help leadership get rid of them. Soon, virtually everyone shares the view that the person is deserving of the bad treatment, and should be eliminated---no matter what it takes.

Rumor and gossip are a part of communal life. While rumor can provide essential information through informal channels, gossip can destroy a target's right to be seen as a valued member of the community. ...Gossip legitimates punishments, including shunning, by fostering a shared view that the person gossiped about is undeserving of respect, dignity, and humanity— and deserving of aggression (and once a target is deemed deserving of aggression, humans will always escalate their aggression).

Human groups need to cooperate. There is often a hierarchy of dominant and subordinate individuals. For the group to succeed, aggression must be controlled and cooperation encouraged. Thus, there are rules and patterns of interaction to reinforce dominance by leadership, enforced by rewards and punishments, including by aggressive acts. There is inevitably a potential for a subordinate to challenge a leader, and for subordinates to attack each other to improve their own position. When the leader targets a member of the group as a victim, everyone joins the attack. The victim may be a newcomer or be weak or sick; any difference can be the trigger, any perceived threat to the existing structure can be a trigger. And the members of the group consider themselves to be acting morally and for the good of the community. These patterns of behavior are very similar to those found among other animals, and they are more powerful than any of our cultural rules about morality, our rights enshrined in law, or rules in an organizational handbook.

Harper argues that the victim of mobbing can never win. She advises that the victim can't fight workplace mobbing and should make every effort to get out. And that we should treat each other with kindness and compassion.

Anyone who is the target of mobbing needs to make very careful strategic choices, and for guidance they should read two books, Mobbed by Janice Harper and Overcoming Mobbing, by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry.

Mobbing in residential settings

In the residential setting, we may find the Guardians, a group of residents (often with management support or tolerance) using bullying to control social life in order to protect the good people and get rid of bad people. Harper's analysis helps me to see that mobbing in the residential context is a ritual of solidarity that creates and/or reinforces the dominance of Guardians, demonstrating their power, and making everyone except the victims feel a part of the community. Together, they determine who does not belong, and together they can get rid of them. Sometimes the housing provider will participate in mobbing directly, but sometimes they will look the other way and thus permit the Guardians to carry on their aggression.

In Bleak House, after struggling to overcome bullying and mobbing, I came to believe that absent changes to protect their rights, the residents of subsidized public housing are helpless to get relief or to make changes where they live. A challenge faced by a victim of mobbing who lives in a multifamily community is that it is almost impossible to get out, because there are so few subsidized situations and because waiting for a new home takes years. As I read Harper's book, I had many flashes of insight and recognition and her analysis gave me new perspectives on my own experiences at Bleak House, as well as on my efforts to build an analytical framework, and the results of our advocacy—the potential of the Massachusetts commission on bullying.

Harper's work is an important contribution to understanding mobbing, including in multifamily residential settings, and deserves to be an essential part of any effort to develop effective remedies.


Note: All quotes and some of the text of this review has been adapted from Mobbed.

Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, (New York:Oxford University Press, 2013).

Harper, Janice, Mobbed!: What to Do When They Really Are Out to Get You, (Tacoma:Backdoor Press, 2013). (paper)

Harper, Janice, Mobbed!: A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing, (Tacoma:Backdoor Press, 2013). (Kindle)

Photo: Courtesy/Copyright Janice Harper