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Psychoterror in the Workplace

©2016 Gail Pursell Elliott

Dr. Heinz Leymann first used the title of this article to describe Mobbing in the workplace. Dr. Leymann’s list of 45 behaviors that may surface during a mobbing is known as “LIPT,” the “Leymann Inventory of Psychological Terrorization,” and is regularly used in research.  With the escalating concerns about terrorist or terrorist like violence at work the term takes on different proportions and meanings.  Some workplaces include what to do if there is an active shooter on the premises as part of new employee training.  Certainly, the possibility of something like this happening can cause employees to become more alert to different situations that may arise, but anxiety and paranoia are not the general results of that training.  During mobbing awareness trainings, I have noted a variety of reactions on the part of participants.  They have varied from “thanks for giving this stuff a name” to “we did this to someone, it will never happen on my watch again” to obvious, but unvoiced discomfort.  Some even have snickered in amusement, usually from a small group in the back row.  The fact that some people actually find this topic amusing says volumes about what may be happening in that workplace, although there are some individuals who react to horrible circumstances with humor to make them more bearable.

Terror is defined as a state of intense fear.  Currently, terrorists create fear by acts of extreme violence, some of which have occurred in workplaces. Psychological terror is triggered by nonviolent behaviors and communication that threaten an individual in a variety of ways apart from bodily harm, although that may be included. The level of fear and the impact of it are as different as each person’s response. The correlation between mobbing and terrorism is specific as follows:

  • It gets others, through fear, to change their normal life patterns.
  • It creates confusion and mistrust.
  • It operates in secrecy or with a code of silence.
  • It causes participants, when confronted, to lie about their intentions and participation.
  • Participants believe any behavior is justified by their motives.
  • People who join in generally are convinced of this justification.
  • They are afraid of being targeted themselves.

With political candidates taking accusatory potshots at each other and the media grabbing hold of items to explore with supposition, it is no wonder that mobbing is still something that most people see every day but engage in inadvertently due to a lack of information.  Mobbing is surely a form of terrorism although using the term terrorist or even bully to identify someone is out of line without further investigation. We have seen these terms batted about in all sorts of situations in the workplace as well as in other venues in the past year and more.  A state legislator explained to me that they were having difficulty passing a bill addressing bullying because they were having trouble defining it.  When I present programs beginning with dignity and respect, one of the first exercises is to initially have participants define the terms individually, then in small groups, and finally share their definitions as a large group for discussion.  The same technique is important to consider when addressing bullying.  The definitions will vary depending upon each person’s experience, whether a target, a perpetrator, a witness, or a participant.  When mobbing is defined and explained to a group, it becomes apparent to people that they may have indeed experienced mobbing on some level.

It is important to have a proactive rather than a reactive approach to this issue. As we continue to see evidence of the less attractive aspects of human behavior and interaction, it is wise to make an assessment of what we believe and values for which we stand whether personally or professionally.  Too often compromise is asked in areas that are deal breakers for most of us.  Just as safety and security involve training on what to do in certain circumstances, whether fire, weather, blood borne pathogens, controlled substances, acts of terrorism or violence, mobbing is a safety issue to be addressed in a similar fashion.  A supportive environment free of intimidation, where it’s OK to make mistakes, greatly affects motivation and attitude. It addresses the basic human need for survival.  When our survival needs are met we are able to think and to concentrate.  Fearful or negative attitudes limit our ability to transfer knowledge to new situations. And of course this impacts the bottom line in myriad ways.

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Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and is co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.  Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world.   Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.  She loves what she does and believes that it matters

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For Consulting, Assistance and Training, contact Gail through her website:   http://www.tashidelay.innovations-training.com

For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit www.youtube.com/dignityrespectlady/videos






























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Toxic Work Environment

 Toxic Work Environment      ©2015 Gail Pursell Elliott

Toxic workplaces can be physically toxic or emotionally toxic.  Some are obvious and others more subtle. Most of us are familiar with physically toxic environments where asbestos or noxious odors are present.  OSHA regulations address this type of workplace safety.  An emotionally toxic workplace can have physical effects on people as well.  Employees have described entering certain work areas and getting headaches or feeling physically ill when there are no physical toxins present but the employees in that area are antagonistic toward each other.  Others who may not be aware of the human relations issues may describe the atmosphere as oppressive or like “hitting the wall” when entering the environment.

The elements that define a hostile work environment include mobbing behaviors.  Some of these include: “when an employee feels uncomfortable or scared to be in his or her work space due to offensive behavior, intimidation or abuse by a coworker or superior”. Whether or not the employee is the target of this behavior may be important to litigation, but even when the employee is not the target the impact of the aggression is felt.  It is especially important when the atmosphere affects the work that is done and the employees’ ability to focus. Mobbing is an organizational dynamic.  Elements within the organizational culture, along with the ways issues are addressed, allow it to exist and persist. These also damage the trust base and the willingness of employees to report misconduct.

Several recent Circuit Court rulings have addressed Title VII harassment and retaliation claims. Mobbing and bullying, which may target anyone regardless of whether they are included in a protected group, are not addressed by the act or similar legislation.  A workplace used to mobbing or bullying can easily exacerbate behaviors prohibited by law.   A culture grounded in dignity and respect principles can offset a lot of this type of abuse.

Case 1 – Involves a sexual harassment issue that was reported anonymously.  Three female employees had experienced remarks and other harassing behaviors by their supervisor.  They all told him to stop. A male employee in the department noticed the interactions and suggested to the supervisor that he stop the behavior.  Upon receiving the anonymous complaint, a human resources representative approached the supervisor, asked several questions without interviewing anyone else.  The complaint was closed as being unsubstantiated. All four of the employees were dismissed during the investigation.  The court awarded damages to all four employees, stating that telling the supervisor to “stop” the harassment satisfied Title VII due to the broadness of the opposition clause.

Case 2 – The Fourth Circuit Court ruled that a single incident can support Title VII harassment and retaliation claims, if extremely serious, that an employee can reasonably believe that a hostile work environment is occurring.  In this case, the employee was referred to with the same egregious epithet twice in a twenty-four hour period.  The employee found this to be both offensive and humiliating.

Harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse, whether or not it is covered by Title VII.  A status blind form of harassment, mobbing and bullying are often used to retaliate against an employee who reports an activity prohibited by law.  These are the tactics used to set up an employee to look incompetent or difficult or even mentally ill after reporting a complaint.  This is why employees may be reluctant to report misconduct.  Statistics from the Ethics Resource Center have indicated that employees who do not report misconduct, apart from resolving the situation themselves, either do not have faith in the disciplinary system or fear retaliation.  These are perceptions on the part of the employees.  Whether or not they reflect reality, they have a very real impact on resolving issues when they occur as well as overall morale.  These subtle behaviors set the stage for more incidents and put everyone at risk.

A general harassment policy attached to the company’s required policies that is consistently enforced can go a long way in creating a healthier work environment for everyone.  It also positively impacts the bottom line in more focused performance, teamwork and trust, and receiving information essential to intercept misconduct before it gets out of hand.

(From The Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report)

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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit www.youtube.com/dignityrespectlady/videos

Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.  Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world.   Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.

For Consulting, Assistance and Training, contact Gail through her website:



The Bully at Work – Mandatory Reporters

From the Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report                                                                           ©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

In health care and human services organizations, professionals on all levels have to complete state mandated training in the area of reporting abuse and neglect.  These programs focus on the treatment of patients and consumers entrusted to the care of these agencies.  Workers completing this training become Mandatory Reporters, which means that they are obligated to report any instances of abuse or neglect that they witness or suspect.  If they do not, they are considered to be complicit in the offense.

In an environment in which workplace mobbing and bullying are rampant these same workers may still commit abusive acts toward coworkers.  The quality and integrity of services to their consumers easily can become compromised.  In these workplaces, the staff may be underpaid and over worked or less than adequately trained for their jobs.  Stress factors like these can create an environment in which a bullying situation both exists and persists.  The erosion of teamwork and trust on the part of staff as well as the nature of the work that is done leaves vulnerable individuals open to inadequate or untimely assistance which can border on abuse and neglect.  When staff members are watching their backs, gossiping, judging coworkers or thwarting the work of others they are not paying attention to the people entrusted to their care.  In other cases, the care of individuals becomes secondary to power plays on the part of staff.

Here are some case examples:

–  A resident in a long term care facility repeatedly calls for help while a group of staff are gossiping. The employees are either so engrossed in the conversation that they do not hear the person or are not paying attention. The matter is not addressed until a visitor brings the resident’s calls to the attention of someone in the group.

–  A manager, who has become accustomed to intimidating staff without intercept or oversight, begins to intimidate clients with veiled threats of withdrawn assistance.

–  An employee reports inadequate services necessary to meet the needs of a resident in a long term care facility.  Her supervisor brings the issue to the attention of the administrator.  The supervisor is fired for some other supposed issue.  The inadequate services remain unaddressed. Employees become reluctant to report variances in care.

These are just a few recent examples of situations I’ve encountered.  The list goes on, for many of the people who ultimately are impacted by these situations are unable to advocate for themselves, are not taken seriously, or are afraid of retaliatory repercussions.  Employees who witness these situations, despite their training, are fearful of reprisals up to and including losing their employment.  In a mobbing, people are often set up to appear to be in the wrong or are placed in untenable situations guaranteed to force them out, one way or another.

– For example, a number of years ago, a staff member at a human services agency was working with a combative consumer while co-workers stood and watched rather than helping.  When the worn out employee finally did something construed as inappropriate, co-workers immediately called in a report.

– In another instance, a staff member arrived late and then proceeded to use the agency phone to carry on an extended, emotional conversation with her boyfriend.  Her co-worker handled care for consumers assigned to both of them.  When the staff member finally got off the phone, her co-worker said that she had taken care of everyone but one consumer and the staff member could care for that one.  The response was that the consumer was assigned to her co-worker and she wouldn’t do it. While the argument ensued, the consumer was left alone in a bathroom rather than being monitored.  The staff member reported her co-worker for neglect.

Human Relations issues between employees cannot take precedence over the focus on the well being of the people being served.  When people are used as bargaining chips to serve some dominance or control agenda, or worse become collateral damage as a result of that agenda, everyone loses and everyone is at risk.  When policies and training designed to protect people are twisted in these ways they become treated as objects and opportunities rather than as human beings.  When employees are caught up in a mobbing or bullying situation they rarely see beyond the context of the situation to the larger picture of the implications and consequences of their actions.  That is why not only training but also follow up insights are important to maintain the level of service that is both expected and deserved by people being served in agencies and in facilities of all kinds.

Let me say definitively that this behavior is generally not the rule but the exception.  Most health care and human services professionals are well meaning and genuinely care about the work that they do, its value, and the importance of quality.  However, when mobbing behavior thwarts these intentions we see turnover, low morale, increased incidences of sick leave due to stress, and losses of key individuals who refuse to associate themselves with an organization that allows this type of conduct to go unchecked.  Standards must be set and then follow up must occur.  The philosophy must extend to all levels of the organization, not just to direct care workers. The most effective leadership is by example. People watch and learn in areas beyond the classroom or mandated training as to what is truly acceptable within an organization and what is not.

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Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace is now available as an E-book.  Download your copy today at www.mobbing-usa.com

“Since coauthoring Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace I have continued to write about mobbing and bullying in both workplaces and schools. My coauthors and I were not the first to address mobbing and bullying on an international basis but we were the first to present the concept of mobbing in the United States. Since our book was published in 1999, many others have jumped on the bandwagon with their own work and that is a good thing. The more people who become aware of this form of mental and emotional abuse and endeavor to educate and intercept it, the better. There is a long way to go but progress in such a worthwhile area is gratifying and I am grateful to be a part of it.”  Gail Pursell Elliott, The Dignity and Respect Lady        www.innovations-training.com

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If You Can’t Stand the Heat

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This form of management was once a recommended way to get employees to quit rather than go through the process of counseling, warnings and the rest of a disciplinary process. While the phrase may be outdated, it is interesting that people still know and understand what it means. Actually, the process is still used although it is considered to be less than ethical and definitely falls into the category of bullying and mobbing.

A recent case in Canada that went to litigation, involved an employee who refused to falsify some information. Her supervisor retaliated by turning up the heat on her, using tactics such as demeaning language and humiliation, often in front of her coworkers. Following company policy, the employee filed a complaint which subsequently was leaked to her supervisor by management. She was then threatened by her supervisor and subjected to increased abusive behavior, some of which was described by her coworkers as “horrific” and “ferocious”. A supposed internal investigation determined that her complaint was unsubstantiated and no action was taken. Finally, after an especially demeaning event, the employee resigned. The courts ruled in favor of the employee, finding not only the supervisor’s actions reprehensible but also the company’s lack of action in addressing the complaint, despite evidence and personal statements on the part of coworkers. The company violated its own policies when it did not intervene on behalf of the employee.

Too often, I hear of this happening within organizations that supposedly have policies and procedures in place to address harassment and other forms of mistreatment of staff, although perhaps not as dramatically as this example. The key point is that when organizations establish policies and procedures they are just as bound by them as their employees are. One of the factors in mobbing is that if the organization does not act, it is construed as approval.

Meaghan McWhinnie of the Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP, who wrote a detailed article about this case, suggests the following to employers. These are wise words for any organization regardless of location.
• “Employers must adhere to their own workplace violence and harassment policies. As the Court of Appeal noted, it is not enough to simply pay “lip service” to such policies.
• Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees and therefore it is important that employees, and in particular managers and supervisors, are fully trained with respect to the company’s workplace violence and harassment policies.
• Employers must take all complaints of workplace harassment and violence seriously and an investigation will almost always be required. The key to ensuring that a workplace investigation is conducted properly is to ensure that it is organized, complete and fair. This includes adhering to any pre-determined policy, having impartial investigators, collecting adequate information and making a decision that is supported by the results of the investigation.
• Employers should not threaten reprisal or impose sanctions against employees who make complaints about harassment or violence in the workplace except for in clear cases of bad-faith complaints.
• Courts will not hesitate to punish “bad behaviour.” Therefore, a proactive human resources and investigation strategy is key to prevent management overstepping the line.”
This occurred in Canada where legislation was passed in the fall of 2013 to address workplace violence and harassment through their Occupational Health and Safety Act. Although great strides have been made regarding awareness of bullying and mobbing in the U.S., including action on the part of companies to address these issues through policies and procedures, without the clarification of a law addressing workplace bullying and mobbing, all sorts of issues have recently surfaced which have astonished even some attorneys. For example, some of the policies enacted by organizations when challenged by employees under certain circumstances have been described by the NLRB as “too vague”.

Perhaps we are addressing this topic in the U.S. in the wrong venue. After all, the impact of mobbing and bullying can certainly be construed as a work injury and has been. Early statutes prohibiting this type of victimization in the workplace enacted in Sweden in the early 1990’s emanated from their Occupational Safety and Health agency. Organizations may consider not only policy but also training addressing mobbing, bullying and general harassment as part of their safety program. Mobbing is a serious risk management issue in the areas of both workers compensation and violence prevention.

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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit youtube.com/dignityrespectlady
Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
Contact Gail through her website: http://www.innovations-training.com

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©2003 Gail Pursell Elliott

The Biblical story of Joseph is a story about mobbing and bullying. It fits the profile well. The importance of the story to me and ultimately to those that have been affected by this type of behavior in their own lives is not what was done, however cruel and reprehensible, but how Joseph ultimately allowed evil to be transformed into something positive.

Simply put, Joseph’s brothers were jealous and secretly resentful of him. They wanted to get rid of him without consequences to them. They ganged up on him, took his beautiful coat that was a gift from their father, abused him, and sold him into slavery. They took the coat, put blood on it, and took it back to their father with a story that a wild beast had killed Joseph. The father was devastated and the brothers kept their secret. No one but Joseph and his brothers knew what had really happened.

Joseph went through a horrible experience and went through more as a slave. Eventually he was elevated to a position of power because who he truly was within himself could not be destroyed regardless of what circumstances were thrust upon him by others.

Joseph could have become bitter and resentful and used the experience as justification to hurt others.
He might have retaliated against his brothers years later when they came asking to buy grain and didn’t recognize him.
He could have allowed what happened to him to destroy his life.
Any number of scenarios are possibilities all based upon personal choice determining personal destiny.

But he did not do any of these destructive things that would have ultimately been self-destructive. He was aware of his personal dignity and self-respect, of his true identity and acted in accordance with that regardless of what had happened to him. He even forgave and helped his brothers and family.

Being true to our inner identity in the face of the challenges and inequities of life can be incredibly difficult. It is especially hard to return evil with goodness. But what we must do is not focus on what to return, but how to transform it and that transformation can only be accomplished by holding on to our personal power and inner truth.

What happened to Joseph was terrible and undeserved. Similarly, the treatment we may receive through the lack of insight, awareness, and the personal choices that others make may be more or less terrible, equally undeserved, and can affect us for a lifetime. We cannot control much of what comes to us in life, or the actions of others, but like Joseph we do control what we do with it.

We may initially feel angry, hurt, betrayed, depressed, anxious, and more. We may blame others or ourselves.
We may become self-righteous and intimidating.
We may retreat within ourselves, lose faith, become hyper vigilant.
We may wish to expose or crush those who have perpetrated evil against us.

It is possible, in fact probable, that Joseph felt all of these things. This is, after all, the story of a human being with wants, hopes, needs, dreams, and desires that were shattered by people he trusted. But eventually he was able to reconnect with something greater within himself that ultimately resulted in him using the experience for good rather than perpetuating the evil that had been done to him.

We have the same choices in situations, whether large or small, that affect either us or those we love in a negative way. We may feel powerless and frustrated but we always have opportunities for transformation. The first step is to not allow ourselves to be consumed by the experience but to move forward in whatever way we can.

We may never have the opportunity to confront those who have changed our lives in this way, as Joseph did. We may never have the closure of apology and reconciliation that he had at the end of the story. We may go on for years never knowing or understanding the purpose of situations that occur, as Joseph did, but we may be assured that opportunities for growth and purpose are present in all situations whether positive or negative.

Joseph lost much but he was not a loser. That was not due to the circumstances of his life but in how he met them. Most of us will never attain the degree of power and influence externally that he did. But whatever we do attain we can choose to wield ultimately with insight, awareness, empathy, compassion, dignity and respect. Then, no matter what we may lose we are never losers either. The power of transformation is always ours.

Anticipate a great day. It’s Yours!


©2000-2014 Gail Pursell Elliott All rights reserved. Food for Thought is part of the Dignity and Respect mission of Innovations and the intellectual property of Gail Pursell Elliott.


Quiet Intimidation

 (Previously published in the Workplace Violence Prevention E-Report)

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

“No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed.” – William James

Of course when people are noticed in ways that are less than flattering or when only their shortcomings are noticed or taken into account, it is another form of intimidation that often crosses the line to abuse. People have a tendency, especially evident in the media, to jump on some information and begin to expand the possibilities for negativity.  I call this being ready, willing, and able to be offended and to spread that idea far and wide.  Actually, this is a form of mobbing and one which I find deeply disturbing, not only because of the correlations that I see but also the willingness of others to believe, participate and expand the possibilities in a destructive way.

The case being made for new laws addressing workplace bullying and mobbing is becoming stronger and more noticeable. While having laws with which to work, to define what mobbing and bullying look like, sound like and feel like are important, as well as the opportunities for legal recourse that they will  provide, they will have limited impact without training and reporting systems that work, in place.  Many workplaces have a serious disconnect between what should be happening in terms of law and policy and what is really happening on a day to day basis between coworkers and the attitudes which support inappropriate conduct.

A case in point is the recent situation at a cotton factory in Memphis, TN where a supervisor actually told an employee not to drink from a water fountain because the employee was black, among other racially motivated offenses.  The supervisor was quoted as saying that he should put up a whites-only sign, reminiscent of circumstances occurring over half a century ago, and made verbal threats as to what would happen if the employee used the fountain.  This supervisor was an equal opportunity abuser, as this was not the only employee to receive such treatment. Although the supervisor was terminated when this came to light, to the horror of the factory owner and the management company for whom the supervisor worked, it had been happening for quite awhile before anyone reported it or anything was done.  The employees reporting the situation along with all of the other staff were intimidated into silence.  In times when decent paying jobs are scarce and people have family responsibilities, they can be reticent about reporting abusive situations that are clearly against the law.  Let alone other situations that are extremely inappropriate but which no law addresses. 

People who may be bullied or harassed within your own organization may feel intimidated to the point of silence and for the same fear of making the situation worse or losing their livelihood.  I recall one person with whom I consulted, telling me that when seeing management staff mistreating an employee, she whispered to a co-worker, “This is wrong.”  The remark was overheard by a supervisor who said, ‘You’ll keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your job.”

 However bizarre this may seem, such things do happen and may be happening under the noses of professionals who mean well but do not have their “fingers on the pulse” of the organizational climate. The difficult part for many organizations to realize is that ethical studies have shown that the reluctance of staff to report inappropriate conduct has a direct correlation to the ethical climate perceived or otherwise, within the organizational culture itself.  The employee in the case described did not report the abuse to EEOC until after he was no longer employed.  This is not a rarity.  It is wise for organizations to periodically review the interactions of people and the organizational climate even when there seems to be no pressing reason to do so.  After all, most of us do not wait until the oil light goes on in our vehicles before having the oil changed.  It is simply an accepted, periodic maintenance task for taking care of our vehicles.  So it can be with a periodic behavioral risk management assessment combined with other basic safety checks that are customary. 

This type of preventive maintenance is not only positive for employee morale and productivity it also impacts the bottom line in terms of reduced turnover, increased motivation, and enhanced company reputation.  When the organization is paying attention, people notice and respond. 

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Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and is co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace.  Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world.   Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio. 

For Civility, Communication, Respect and Dignity programs, Consulting, Assessments, and Training contact Gail through her website:


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Working the Gray Area

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

“The only real moral crime that one man can commit against another is the attempt to create, by his words or actions, an impression of the contradictory, the impossible, the irrational, and thus shake the concept of rationality in his victim.” — Ayn Rand

Whether or not you agree with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the above quote describes clearly a type of abuse perpetrated by mobbers and bullies in the workplace. Even if you have a bullying or general harassment policy in place, these enterprising people will work in the gray areas of those policies. This can happen on any level of the organization, whether supervisors, coworkers, or subordinates. It is important to be specific when writing such a policy that these more subtle behaviors are included and also to pay attention to concerns from employees which may seem trivial at the time but are indicative of patterns of behavior that undermine an individual’s ability to perform. As my colleague, the late Tim Field wrote, “By the time HR get to hear of the bullying they are faced with an articulate, plausible, convincing, charming “bully” and a gibbering wreck of a “target” who is traumatized and thus unconvincing, inarticulate, incoherent, obsessed, apparently paranoid, tearful, distressed and highly emotional. By this time the bully has already convinced HR that the target has a “mental health problem”, is a liability to the organization, and needs to be got rid of.”

Examples of these types of behaviors are taken from actual cases with which I have experience. Often what happens is that one individual will be held to a different standard than others, micromanaged, or is the recipient of off handed remarks that are ambiguous. If the employee questions these the response may be simply a look of incredulity. For example, in a retail environment, a supervisor or manager, under the guise of supervisory discretion, consistently assigns work that is unpleasant, meaningless, or impossible to complete within expected time frames to one individual. The person is assigned to working every Saturday while others work that day on a rotating basis. Adjusting a schedule and posting it without notifying one of the impacted employees while others are told about it, is another subtle way this is done. The supervisor can simply say it is the employee’s responsibility to check the schedule regularly.

Another way people work the gray area is to treat a coworker as if he or she is invisible, interacting with the person only when absolutely necessary and to a minimal degree. Being left out is a strong memory for many adults and is difficult especially in a work environment where people regularly socialize. It sounds adolescent and of course it is. When a person is described as a loner who keeps to himself perhaps it is because that individual has been excluded in subtle ways. Most people appreciate having the option of being included whether they participate or not as well as being treated with courtesy and kept informed of social opportunities without feeling that they are being singled out for jokes that on the surface may appear harmless but are intended to create discomfort. Isolation and exclusion are among the recognized mobbing behaviors. We are all familiar with the concept of isolation in health care; someone is placed in isolation when they have a contagious disease. In corrections, inmates are placed in solitary confinement as a punishment. Treating an employee or coworker as if they have the plague or deserve punishment for some nebulous offense is inappropriate. Specifically address avoidance or shunning as a behavior in your policies if not already included.

This type of subtle behavior has been used to eliminate people from the workplace by making the conditions so uncomfortable that the person decides to resign and go elsewhere. In past years it was called turning up the heat on the employee. When this does not work, especially when the person has been with the organization for many years or when other opportunities for employment are scarce, supervisors or others begin a process of demoralizing and setting the stage for the person to appear to be substandard in performance or otherwise undesirable. If the person does leave the behavior continues afterward, as people try to justify their actions toward the worker. These are some of the reasons why a person who has been subjected to this type of abuse and believes that his reputation, employability, self respect and even safety have been compromised by the organization, may plot revenge or return to commit an act of workplace violence.

In the majority of cases, the bullying you see is the tip of an iceberg of subtle and pervasive wrongdoing. Bullies and mobbers are adept at exploiting the policies of organizations and playing political games for personal gain. They also are adept at deception, especially the manipulation of HR and management perceptions of the target. Creating a safe and respectful environment for everyone is not just the job of HR, Security, or management in general. It is the responsibility of everyone who works for the organization. Policies can specify both expectations and prohibitions when it comes to behavior but ultimately, setting the example is something that each person can take very personally.

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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit youtube.com/dignityrespectlady
Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
For Human Relations Consulting, Assessments and Training, contact Gail through her website: