Mobbing at work: Understanding the difference between mobbing and bullying and how to address them

Mobbing at work: difference between mobbing and bullying

Workplaces are meant to be environments where people can collaborate, grow, and thrive. However, for many employees, this ideal workplace can turn into a nightmare when they become victims of mobbing or bullying. While these terms are often used interchangeably, it is important to understand that they are distinct forms of workplace mistreatment. In this article, we will delve into the notions of mobbing and bullying, highlight their fundamental distinctions, offer guidance on addressing and countering these harmful behaviors, and explore the ways Addezia can assist you in achieving these objectives.

Understanding mobbing at work and bullying

Mobbing and bullying are both forms of workplace harassment, but they differ in terms of scale, dynamics, and duration.

The statistics are worrying: according to a survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2021, a staggering 48.6 million Americans have directly encountered workplace bullying. The survey revealed that men tend to be the primary aggressors when it comes to bullying other men, whereas women are more inclined to target other women.

Meanwhile, a 2018 study by the European Parliament found that 5-10% of the European workforce is bullied at work at any one time.

Mobbing, sometimes referred to as “mobbing at work” or “workplace mobbing,” is a hostile and persistent campaign of psychological abuse and harassment aimed at an individual employee by a group of colleagues or superiors. Mobbing at work is characterized by its ongoing nature and the collective participation of multiple individuals against the target.

According to researchers Shallcross, Ramsay, and Barker, mobbing can be described as “a deliberate attempt to force a person out of their workplace by humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse, and terror.”

Key features of mobbing at work include:

  • Group Dynamics: Mobbing at work involves a group of people ganging up on a single individual. This group can consist of coworkers, supervisors, or a combination of both. It is worth noting that there are two types of mobbing:

a) horizontal (on the same hierarchical level);

b) vertical, in two forms: top-down (from a manager to a subordinate) and bottom-up (from the team to an unwanted manager, who becomes the target and is harassed with the aim of self-elimination);

  • Persistence: Mobbing is a prolonged campaign of harassment, often extending over weeks, months, or even years.
  • Psychological Abuse: Mobbing typically includes tactics such as verbal abuse, ostracism, rumor-spreading, and sabotage designed to undermine the victim’s self-esteem and work performance.
  • Isolation: The target of mobbing is often socially isolated, with coworkers distancing themselves from the victim due to fear of being targeted themselves.

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying at work, on the other hand, is the mistreatment of an employee by one or more coworkers or supervisors. While it shares some similarities with mobbing, it differs in terms of scale and dynamics.

Key features of workplace bullying include:

  • Perpetrator: Bullying typically involves one or a few individuals who engage in repeated aggressive and intimidating behaviors directed at a single victim.
  • Repetition: Bullying may be a series of isolated incidents or a pattern of ongoing mistreatment. It is characterized by its repetitive nature.
  • Direct and indirect tactics: Bullying may include overt actions, such as yelling, belittling, or humiliating the target, as well as more subtle tactics like excessive criticism, undermining, or withholding information.

Key differences between mobbing and bullying

  • Scale and dynamics:

The most significant difference between mobbing and bullying is the scale and dynamics of the harassment. Mobbing involves a group of people targeting an individual, while bullying typically involves one or a few individuals mistreating another.

  • Duration:

Mobbing is a long-term, often chronic problem, which can persist for months or even years. In contrast, bullying incidents can be sporadic, but they still contribute to an overall hostile work environment.

  • Group Participation:

Mobbing requires a group of individuals to collaborate in their abusive behavior, whereas bullying can be carried out by a single person or a small number of people.

  • Isolation:

In mobbing, the victim is often socially isolated, with colleagues distancing themselves due to fear. In bullying, the victim may still have some support from other coworkers.

Read more: Toxic workplace culture: recognizing the signs and navigating the solutions

Mobbing and bullying techniques

These are intended to undermine the victim’s confidence, reputation, and overall well-being. Here are some common mobbing examples:

  1. Verbal abuse: Mobbers may engage in name-calling, ridicule, sarcasm, and demeaning language to attack the target’s self-esteem.
  2. Ostracism: Excluding the victim from workplace conversations, meetings, or social activities to make them feel isolated and insignificant.
  3. Spreading rumors: Mobbers often spread false or damaging information about the victim to tarnish their reputation and credibility.
  4. Excessive criticism: Constantly criticizing the target’s work, even for minor mistakes, in an attempt to undermine their self-confidence and performance.
  5. Undermining: Mobbers may sabotage the victim’s efforts, such as by interfering with their projects, withholding information, or setting them up for failure.
  6. Withholding information: Deliberately withholding important work-related information from the target, making it difficult for them to perform their job effectively.
  7. Gaslighting: Manipulating the victim’s perception of reality, making them doubt their own experiences and feelings. This can lead to confusion and self-doubt.
  8. Sabotage: Physically tampering with the victim’s workspace or belongings, causing damage or disrupting their work.
  9. Intimidation: Using physical presence, threatening gestures, or aggressive behavior to create fear in the victim.
  10. Cyberbullying: In the digital age, mobbing can also manifest as online harassment, such as sending threatening emails, spreading rumors through social media, or posting defamatory content.
  11. Mocking and mimicking: Mobbers may imitate the victim’s behavior or gestures in a mocking or condescending manner, further humiliating them.
  12. Invasion of privacy: Invading the target’s personal space or accessing their private information without consent, violating their sense of security.

Causes of mobbing and bullying at work

Mobbing and bullying in the workplace can arise from a variety of factors, and it’s often the result of a combination of these elements. Understanding these causes is crucial in addressing and preventing workplace mobbing. They include:

  • Conformity pressure

One common cause of workplace mobbing is the desire for conformity. When an individual or a group of individuals deviates from the established norms, work culture, or expectations of the organization, they may become targets of mobbing at work. Conformity pressure can lead to hostility toward those who don’t fit in or who challenge the status quo.

  • Poor organizational culture

An unhealthy or toxic organizational culture that tolerates or even encourages hostility, competition, and interpersonal conflicts can foster an environment where mobbing at work can thrive. Lack of proper values, respect, and ethical standards can contribute to mobbing behaviors.

  • Competition

In highly competitive workplaces, where performance evaluations, promotions, or rewards are based on relative performance, individuals may resort to mobbing as a way to eliminate competition or to discredit high-performing colleagues.

  • Workplace stress

High levels of stress, excessive workloads, and unrealistic expectations can create a breeding ground for mobbing at work. When employees are under immense pressure, they may vent their frustrations and anxieties on their colleagues, leading to mobbing behaviors.

  • Lack of anti-bullying policies

The absence of clear anti-bullying policies and procedures within an organization can leave employees without proper channels for reporting mobbing incidents and seeking protection. When there are no consequences for perpetrators, mobbing can persist.

It is very important to note that the responsibility for mobbing lies not only with the individual/ individuals who perpetrate it, but also with the organization that allows the aggression to continue. From a legal perspective, the organization will be held responsible and must demonstrate that it has taken both preventive action (e.g. by including anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies) and corrective action when deviations from the code of conduct or labour law occur.

  • Group dynamics

Mobbing at work involves group behavior. A group of coworkers or supervisors may collectively target an individual, feeling emboldened by their actions. Groupthink and peer pressure can contribute to mobbing dynamics.

  • Perceived threat

An individual’s success, competence, or unique qualities can be perceived as a threat by others. Colleagues may engage in mobbing behavior to undermine someone they see as a rival or a challenge to their own position or status.

  • Discrimination and prejudice

Mobbing can be fueled by discrimination, whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors. Individuals who are different from the majority can become targets of mobbing due to prejudice and bias.

  • Jealousy and Low Self-Esteem

Individuals with low self-esteem may resort to mobbing as a way to cope with their feelings of inadequacy. They may target colleagues who have admirable qualities or are well-liked by others, leading to envy-driven mobbing.

  • Lack of Intervention

When organizations do not address mobbing incidents promptly and effectively, it sends a message that such behavior is tolerated. The lack of intervention can encourage perpetrators to continue their actions.

Read more: Unlocking Success: Fostering Psychological Safety at Work

What are the effects of mobbing at work?

Being mobbed at work can have profound and far-reaching effects on an individual’s physical, emotional, and psychological health. The consequences of workplace mobbing can be severe and long-lasting. Here are some of the effects of being mobbed at work:

  • Emotional distress: Workplace mobbing often leads to significant emotional distress, including feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness. Victims may experience a constant sense of dread or fear, leading to a decline in their mental health.
  • Physical health issues: The stress and anxiety resulting from mobbing at work can manifest as physical health problems. These may include sleep disturbances, headaches, digestive issues, high blood pressure, and even an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Isolation and social withdrawal: Mobbing at work often results in social isolation as victims withdraw from colleagues and friends. They may fear further mistreatment and become reluctant to engage in workplace interactions.
  • Impaired job performance: Due to the emotional and psychological toll of mobbing, victims may find it difficult to concentrate and perform at their best. This can lead to a decline in job performance, further exacerbating the problem.
  • Negative impact on personal life: The stress and emotional turmoil from workplace mobbing can spill over into an individual’s personal life, straining relationships with family and friends.
  • Legal and ethical implications: In some cases, mobbing at work may involve illegal actions, such as harassment or discrimination, which can result in legal consequences for both the perpetrators and the organization.

Read more: Towards a more resilient world: Overcoming the challenges of mental health at work

Addressing mobbing and bullying at work

Addressing mobbing and bullying at work is a crucial responsibility for HR managers and leaders, as it contributes to a healthier, more productive, and more ethical workplace. Here are some steps you can take to effectively address these issues:

1. Create clear anti-bullying and mobbing policies and have zero tolerance:

Develop and implement clear, comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-mobbing policies within the organization. Ensure that these policies define the issues correctly, provide examples, and outline the reporting procedures. Clearly communicate the organization’s zero-tolerance policy for mobbing and bullying in internal communications and public statements.Educate Employees:

2. Educate Employees:

Conduct training programs and workshops to educate employees about what constitutes mobbing at work and bullying, their negative impacts, and the organization’s policies and procedures for reporting and addressing such behavior.

3. Promote a culture of respect:

Foster a culture of respect, inclusivity, and empathy in the workplace. Communicate the values and expectations of respectful behavior to all employees.

4. Create reporting channels:

Establish confidential and easily accessible reporting channels for employees who experience or witness mobbing at work or bullying. Ensure that employees feel safe and encouraged to report incidents without fear of repercussions.

5. Investigate promptly:

Take all reports seriously and conduct thorough, impartial investigations. Address the issue as quickly as possible to prevent further harm.

6. Take appropriate action:

Based on investigation findings, take appropriate actions such as disciplinary measures, counseling, or mediation to address the problem. Ensure that consequences are applied consistently.

7. Support the victim

Provide support to the victim, which may include access to counseling services, guidance, and assurance of their confidentiality and protection.

8. Monitor and prevent recurrence:

Continuously monitor the workplace for signs of mobbing at work and bullying. Implement measures to prevent recurrence, such as regular training, awareness campaigns, and anonymous feedback mechanisms.

Read more: How to foster psychological safety and mental health in the IT industry

The role of psychological safety in handling mobbing at work

Psychological safety plays a crucial role in managing mobbing and bullying at work. It is a fundamental element of a healthy and respectful workplace culture that can help prevent, detect, and address these toxic behaviors effectively.

In a psychologically safe environment, employees feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences with mobbing and bullying. They are more likely to report incidents, even if they are only in the early stages, which allows organizations to address the issue promptly.

In addition, psychological safety ensures that employees reporting mobbing or bullying are protected from retaliation. When employees trust that their concerns will be handled confidentially and without repercussions, they are more likely to come forward.

Tackling mobbing and bullying at work with Addezia’s solutions

Our approach is designed to cater to your specific requirements and hurdles in two directions:

  • Psychological safety: Using the methodology developed by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, we can help you measure the level of psychological safety felt by teams. With Addezia, employers can build an action plan for developing the skills needed to build a healthy work environment, where employees can express themselves without fear of ridicule, discrimination, or harassment. They trust that their opinions are respected.
  • Mental and emotional health at work: We design interventions, workshops, and training to help people develop a range of skills and practices needed to reduce mobbing and bullying, such as respect and inclusion, open and honest communication, conflict resolution, healthy team dynamics, healthy work-life balance, and many others.


Mobbing at work and bullying are distressing workplace behaviors that can cause significant harm to individuals and organizations. Understanding the differences between these two forms of harassment, as well as their techniques, causes, and effects, are essential to dealing with them effectively. By recognizing the issue, implementing clear policies, and fostering a culture of respect and support, organizations can create a safer and more productive work environment for all employees. It is everyone’s responsibility to combat mobbing at work to ensure that workplaces become spaces where people can flourish, free from fear and intimidation.


Psych Central

Better Help

Harvard Business Review

National Library of Medicine

European Parliament

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