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A Can of Worms

©2016 Gail Pursell Elliott

When Mobbing and Bullying are already part of the organizational culture, an unsuspecting staff member can open a can of worms by questioning actions that seem unfair or unethical.  To open a can of worms is an idiom meaning to examine or attempt to solve some problem, only to inadvertently complicate it and create even more trouble.  A professional inquiry or suggestion of impropriety on the part of one person can expose a whole network of favors, deals, and promotions that were made behind the scenes to benefit individual agendas.  Those involved may feel that it is better to silence the person questioning the action by pushing them out of the workplace.  I have dealt with a number of cases in which the target inadvertently uncovered corruption within the organization and paid dearly for it.

One of these cases involved a talented individual working for an organization dealing with highly classified, sensitive information.  Over a number of years, this person researched, monitored and reported on important data.  The series was well done, accurate, and useful.  The credit for this person’s work went to someone unfamiliar with the process and the data, who then was promoted.  Upon discovering this, the individual wondered how this could happen and went to the appropriate people to resolve the situation.  The can was opened.  What ensued was a smear campaign that reads like a work of suspense fiction.  During the ordeal, a family member said to the target, “Why didn’t you just keep your mouth shut?” The fact is that many people do keep quiet when something like this happens out of fear of reprisal, even though they know that ethics have been breached and they have been treated unfairly.  Or they may watch and do nothing for the same reasons. People who keep their heads down and do their work suffer from the same anxiety that targets do for they know they might be next.

The problem with this type of situation is that the credibility of the organization as a whole comes into jeopardy and the rights of an individual staff member however talented and productive, become expendable. Settling a lawsuit out of court can be construed as an admission of guilt and the ramifications of what happens after the fact can be huge.  Remembering that Mobbing Is an organizational dynamic and generally more than one person may be targeted as part of the status quo, others may see a successful settlement as an opportunity to seek restitution as well.  While whistleblowers are supposedly protected by law, the laws are not always followed by the perpetrators or transgressions are hidden by seemingly coincidental events or others difficult to prove.  These targets, like many other mobbing targets, are under attack both in and out of the workplace to discredit them and event to attempt to compromise their very sanity.  The aftermath of mobbing often involves further harassment engineered to justify the actions taken against the target while in the workplace.

In this case, the individual approached me while still working at the organization, but the harassment was well under way.  Finding an attorney for her was difficult in itself and she had to go out of state to find one who would even take the case.  She was evaluated by psychiatrists, given lie detector tests, stopped by security for suspected firearms, followed everywhere she went, and other types of bizarre situations.  This is not new to me.  When someone works with sensitive information or even may be suspected of overhearing or discovering something they weren’t supposed to know, they become a potential threat.  When someone is viewed in this way, they can become targeted.  The original issue, in this case, getting credit for one’s own work, becomes lost in the discrediting campaign and it gains force all on its own as others are sucked in to a process in which they believe they are doing the right thing or have been paid or promised some sort of reward for participation.

While this type of situation is extreme, it happens frequently to a lesser degree in organizations of all kinds, not just those dealing with confidential information.  Some organizations have things going on behind the scenes that they would like to keep from employees and willfully distort the truth when sharing information.  Rumor mills are everywhere and pick up snippets of information from various sources that are then embellished. Has a can of worms been opened at your organization?  Here are some indicators:

Mobbing Indicators – Organizational Checklist *

  1. Sudden losses of key individuals.
  2. Unusually high staff turnover rate in one or more areas, or company-wide.
  3. Increased occurrences of sick leave
  4. Unexplainable low morale.
  5. Reduction in quality or quantity of work.
  6. Unpleasant employee relations.
  7. A breakdown of communications and teamwork.
  8. Factionalism
  9. Increased use of outside consultants.
  10. Increased unemployment insurance claims
  11. Increased workers’ compensation/disability/occupational stress claims
  12. A person now accused of substandard performance or some other unacceptable behavior is someone who’s work and behavior was previously above average.


*Mobbing:  Emotional Abuse In The American Workplace , 1999 Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliott    ISBN 0-9671803-0-9

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Gail Pursell Elliott is known as The Dignity and Respect Lady.  She has been recognized as an authority on Mobbing, Bullying and Harassment since 1998 and has been a guest expert on both television and radio programs.  Gail is the author of several books, including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse: See It, Stop It, Prevent It with Dignity and Respect. Her Food for Thought essays are read by people around the world.  She is co-author of the 1999 book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, the definitive book on this subject based on the original research of Dr. Heinz Leymann. She consults with organizations of all kinds, presents at conferences, and provides training on Mobbing and soft skills topics with a focus on people treating each other with Dignity and Respect.  Gail is founder and proprietor of Innovations “Training With a Can-Do Attitude” located in Eastern Iowa.  Her website is innovations-training.com     She would love to work with you to help heal your organization with both insight and awareness.


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