Mobbing in Academia?

This article [registration required] in the Chronicle claims that academia is rife with mobbing, or:

‘an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker.’

To flesh out the concept, [an academic] drew up a list of 45 mobbing indicators. It amounted to an impressive catalog of bureaucratic nastiness: ‘You are interrupted constantly’; ‘you are isolated in a room far from others’; ‘management gives you no possibility to communicate’; ‘you are given meaningless work tasks’; ‘you are given dangerous work tasks’; ‘you are treated as if you are mentally ill.’

Notably, this work bears many similarities to Prof. Livingston’s post on law professor happiness, discussed here not so long ago. The article explains that mobbing is (allegedly) quite prevalent in universities:

[I]nstitutions where workers have high job security, where there are few objective measures of performance, and where there is frequent tension between loyalty to the institution and loyalty to some higher purpose.

To be honest, I just don’t see the problem here. Even if “mobbing” were a real phenomena, and even if it occurred at relatively higher rates in institutions, so what? Most faculties have a few marginalized folks. Most for-profit enterprises do not. Because the for-profit enterprises fire people who don’t fit in. Bearing with irritating colleagues is the trade-off that academics have made to retain tenure. Since tenure isn’t wildly unpopular among professors, I imagine that people think it is worth it.

Thus, I doubt the article’s claim that “mobbing” could be reduced by changing governance structures or training better administrators. If you can’t fire people who offend, and setting up positive incentive structures is similarly difficult, managing behavior will be left to informal social sanctions. Like shunning, and shaming, and, I suppose, mobbing.

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14 Responses

  1. Lynn says:

    Without arguing whether or not it should be encouraged or reduced, I wanted to address why a person would be mobbed: what is their socially unacceptable behavior. Because as a female, I have experienced each factor The Chronicle lists:

    having my comments and discussion interrupted; having offices far removed from “the center of action;” being given tasks that are not only incommensurate with my multiple degrees and experience, but also demeaning as a general matter; … and I think most importantly, in building peer esteem is the inclusion to the social network that is involved in a workplace.

    Now while I acknowledge there could be contributing factors to this treatment: perhaps they did not like my work, my interactive style, or my shoes … But ultimately, at the end of the day, the “mobbing” left me defensive or aggressive, and neurotic … Not an ideal situation for the employee be productive in, or the employer in achieving efficiency or synergy. I do agree with you in the sense that: I didn’t fit in (for whatever reason), and so left. But this sort of manipulative social engineering is slippery slope … I’m hoping LGB, affirmative action, or sexual harassment advocates would concur.

    So while I think your post is interesting (thanks), I pause to condone the issue of mobbing as easily as you seem to (“no problem”) >> what characteristics are we excluding people based on? And since when should a mob ever be trusted?

  2. Cathy says:

    Not to dispute what you say about academia (what would I know anyway) I do want to point out that this kind of thing does happen in the private sector. A lot.

    What you said about the outcast, “Because the for-profit enterprises fire people who don’t fit in,” isn’t necessarily true (a) because the true misfit is often the person leading the mob and not actually the outcast, and (b) because the idea that the private sector is a meritocracy is so often a myth. There can be so much inertia in companies that, along with the dearth of channels for remedying the situation, both bullies and the bullied can often hang on for a long, long time.

  3. anti-mobber says:

    Mobbing happens everywhere: on school yards, in academia, in the private sector, in pop culture. I find Dave’s reaction surprisingly blase about what is simply human cruelty.

    To overstate his argument for the purpose of discussion, should we conclude that people who get mobbed are simply getting what they deserve?

  4. Dave Hoffman says:

    Anti-mobber: No, they aren’t, and I take your point that my post could be read to be (unintentionally) blase about cruelty. Informal mechanisms of social control can be more psychologically taxing than formal law and order. But nevertheless the claim that academic institutions are going to be able to change behavior in the ways the article describes seems, to me, to be overly optimistic.

    Lynn raises a good point,which I should think about more. But this explanation too wouldn’t single out academic life for special concern.

    Cathy argues that the private sector isn’t a meritocracy, and over the short- to medium- run, I agree 100%. Still, you have to think that there are relatively fewer folks disagreeing with institutional policy in public among private-sector employees than among university professors.

  5. Scott Moss says:

    “Mobbing” sounds like another term for a topic much-studied in legal academia: informal enforcement of social norms, which we expect to see (a) where formal enfordcement mechanisms are ineffective (here, b/c of tenure), and (b) where interaction is rich enough that there are opportunities to “punish” informally those who transgress social norms.

    Of course, while there are obvious positive aspects to informal enforcement of social norms (i.e., you can get “Order Without Law,” as the title of Robert Ellickson’s book proclaims), there is a dark side to social norms too: they can be the means of a lot of discirminatory exclusion, as Lynn notes above.

  6. anti-mobber says:


    Thanks. I understand that you are not indifferent to unfairness. As for the prospects of structural reform, I can’t disagree with you.

  7. Kaimi says:

    Test comment


  8. Deven Desai says:

    Is this topic related to the idea of microinequities? Time magazine mentioned this concept in an article Why Your Boss May Start Sweating The Small Stuff.

    The article notes that large companies and law firms are paying more attention to “indirect offenses that can demoralize a talented employee” in part because these events might impact the promotion of women and minorities and be part of the basis for discrimination suits. The article also suggests that companies are paying attention to the idea in part because it relates to the retention of talent. The term’s origin is attributed to MIT. I am not sure but that may be a nod to the work of Mary P. Rowe whose paper Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination to Maintain Unequal Opportunity argues that “that subtle discrimination is now the principal scaffolding for segregation in the United States. The author suggests this scaffolding is built of “micro-inequities”: apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator.”

  9. As someone who works in the field of emotional intelligence, and with people who have been mobbed or bullied in the workplace (among other clients)I take exception to what you have written. Surely you did not mean to imply that someone should be free to drive from the collective midst someone whom they perceive to be a “misfit” and that you, or someone else has the right to judge who is a “misfit”? I hope you are not that insensitive – to the feelings of other people, to how your writing comes across (as you are in a position to influence others), and to the conditions that produce good work from workers, or even, perhaps, to your own feelings. The real misfit, no, sorry, the pathologic person who needs to be driven from the collective midst, if not rehabilitated, is the sadistic bully. People who do this are not “driving out misfits,” they are exercising their pathology on another human being. They enjoy torturing other people. It makes them feel good. Please, it has absolutely nothing to do with the victim they choose. Just any old body will do because it’s “what they do,” and if not him, then her. It is simply inexcusable and I am tempted to invoke GL but I won’t. I know for a fact that leadership can turn it around. If someone is disinterested in the feelings and ultimately health of other people, they might be interested in their own bottom line. Things like the cost to the employer (and society) for the stress this sort of work environment produces. 85% of visits to primary care physicians are work-stress related. In just one example, I have personally seen a boss nip it right in the bud. He saw mobbing for what it is, labeled it, and put an end to it. He called each person in and made it clear that that sort of behavior would not be tolerated in his shop, on his watch. He happens to be a lawyer. He has very high EQ (emotional intelligence) as well as high IQ, and knows what gossip and mobbing do to morale, and therefore productivity, and therefore the reputation the company/firm has (as to acquiring good people and keeping them in the future), and therefore to the bottom line. But I suspect the real reason why he bothered, why he did not say “so sad, too bad,” as you do, had to do with his personal character and integrity. If you can grasp a metaphor, this same sort of thing can happen in a family (after all, we are never far from The Lord of the Flies or The Ox-Bow Incident) (and it probably did happen in the family of the perpetrator), if parents don’t set standards, if they turn their back on a child who bullies his or her sibling (decent prosocial behavior is learned, you know), if they’re too preoccupied to notice, too lazy to get up and do something, or if they simply don’t care, or, god forbid, they enjoy it. I don’t know if you have kids, but would you allow this sort of vicious behavior in your house? Addressing it takes energy. It means paying attention. It means not cynically accepting platitudes such as “It’s a jungle out there.” Not everywhere, it’s not. And yes, it’s one more thing on your list, but to quote you, “To be honest, I just don’t see the problem there.” It means caring about who you are and how you run your shop. Mobbing and bullying are worldwide phenomena, and the US is behind in addressing it. (Just as the UK for instance has “corporate manslaughter.” They do not hide behide the corporate veil as much; they hold the leader’s feet to the fire. (As the UK coach I trained in EQ put it, “That [corporate manslaughter] tends to focus the CEO’s attention admirably [on bringing in a culture of emotional intelligence].”) Yes, it’s prevalent in academia, also healthcare industry, and social service agencies. You say it’s less in corporate because they get rid of deadwood (what a way to talk about people). Would you consider it’s because they must attract the best and word gets around, and because they don’t like escalating insurance premiums for sick workers, or the toll it takes in absenteeism and presenteeism. They may also dislike litigation and be more vulnerable to it (and corporate life is no walk in the park), and if that’s what it takes, sometimes that’s what it takes. The lawsuits are rolling in Europe. Germany even has a clinic just for the victims of mobbing and bullying. There have been some big-dollar awards to victims. It does not just effect the “misfit,” as you call it, it affects the health of everyone in the environment (5 mins. of anger suppresses the immune system for up to 6 hours). I’m talking physical illness, not what you would call “mental health” because emotions affect physical health. Read Candace Pert, Ph.D., – they’re in every cell of our body. Read “Anger Kills” (Redford Williams). It’s a hostile act and destroys morale all around it. Worst of all is to accept that’s the way it’s got to be because that’s the way it is; and to consider it has to be a “tradeoff.” There are always more than two options. I would like to at least raise your consciousness about your beliefs and attitude. Further, I would like to direct you to this article from Harvard Business Review ( ) which includes a description of how CEO Michael Dell and president Kevin Rollins decided to change the way Dell made its money, made a “top-down personal committment to change … and launched a culture initiative called the ‘soul of Dell’.” They were “respected for their intellectual acumen and superior judgment. But they were also considered demanding and, at times, intimidating. Not surprisingly, most general managers at Dell were cut from the same cloth …” They also wanted to learn how to get along better with each another. Top-down is the instrumental term. Groups can revert to lynching mobs, but they don’t have to. There are plenty of places that don’t have it, simply because it isn’t tolerated – maybe because the company’s risk-aversive, maybe just because it’s wrong. Coaching in emotional intelligence is always available, and it works. (Dell and Rollins hired coaches.) “Just because it’s always been that way” wasn’t good enough for Michael Dell and that was no small organization to move. I would like to challenge you to rethink your position. Now to correct some of your misperceptions, i.e., I found your blog because I was trying to relocate an article by a psychologist who studies juries in employment cases. She wants to know what juries think about mobbing, particularly to know what makes them mad, because mad is what they get to vent when it comes to the punishment phase of the trial (as you know). And guess what? “Juries believe that mobbing exists.” They know it’s real. And it particularly enrages them when someone who’s high up gets away with it. Guess what else? Male jurors believe more than women do that it’s the fault of the victim, and the victim should take care of it themselves. This makes sense in terms of gender EQ. While men and women test the same in EQ overall (actually men test a few points higher), the genders differ in the competencies, with men testing lower in empathy and social responsiblity and women testing lower in stress tolerance. (See Bar-on). Who’s right? Mobbing is wrong. You are incorrect that mobbing victimes are “misfits.” Studies show that they are often among the best and most productive employees. I have coached mobbing victims to avoid the things that make them the choice-du-jour. There is one thing they all say … If anyone’s reading this who’s been a victim, email me. I do not condone it. I do not agree it’s any kind of trade-off…though one man I coached did at first…he said he was tough, he could handle it … all 350 lbs. of him. He had weighed 200 when he started working in that place. Your tradeoff may ultimately be your big fat paycheck for a lot of medical bills and a huge premium on a life insurance policy large enough to take care of your kids and spouse.

    Susan Dunn, EQ Coach

  10. SB says:

    I have been mobbed in several work environments in science and I am looking ways to protect myself since I can not rely on bosses since they are also part of the gang. Ihave display different behaviours but they do not seem effective. Please contact me in case you can help me.



  11. AB says:

    It is in a way comforting to know that I was not the only person mobbed at my prior work places. I have always been the best student at school, and performed very well in various disciplines – from sciences to literature. I have graduated with the highest GPA and decided to go into accounting field. In various companies I have encountered humiliating tasks assigned to me, devaluing comments from supervisers, etc. It seems to me that I was able to handle a work of my boss better than he did, and then every time when I was able to perform better than my supervisors, bullying began. On my prior assignment, I thought I have developed a thick skin by ignoring nonsence, and tried to focus only on my work. But the bullies decided to go further – they drugged me. So a word of advice for those who are bullied – carry your water with you in a closed cap. I think the best revenge against bullies is to be successful. I noticed that my life just took off once I left the places where I worked. I also noticed that if I am among intellectual people who are secure in themselves, the acknowledge your talents. I still have a hard time understanding how human cruelty can reach a point it did with me. However, I take this bullying as a complement – if I was not special, then they would not bother with me! So just do the best you can to be the best you can be!

  12. Anonymous says:

    I experienced mobbing as an average student in college in Austin,Texas at the “top tier” UT. People there make unreasonable demands and then they come down on you like a ton of bricks when you don’t meet their idealized standard. Not only that but they give you a hard time about any little thing. Also the mobbers I met not only included a group of students, but staff and faculty were involved too, these people did not come across as the smartest obviously but they were the meanest and most corrupt bunch of weirdos I’ve ever met. It’s too bad that university and other colleges rewards and instigates those behaviors. It is just sickening to see that. Absolutely sickening and disgraceful. At least I’ve finished college elsewhere, I have my degree and I am doing great.

  13. BulliedatUnivofMemphis says:

    Mobbing is getting out of hand at The University of Memphis