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(as published in "The Dawn of Europe", Brussels, March 2000)


Why to speak of mobbing? The human cost of mobbing (from nervous breakdown to suicide) but also the economic costs (owing to the related medical and psychological cures) are becoming very high since the crisis has brought up a development and an increase of such behaviours in modern society. With increasing frustrations due to changing socio-economic contexts, and the ever-increasing demands on individuals, mobbing appears as a variant of the scapegoat mechanism. It might be thought, prima facie, that such reactions occur only in low-qualified milieus, without the intellectual resources necessary to solve the problem. Mobbing, however, might also arise in an universitarian milieu: recently there were reports of an Italian neurology surgeon who was obliged to resign after being mobbed by his colleagues and the personnel of the hospital where he exercised his profession.

Mobbing, bullying, moral harassment: these are all different terms that point out to the same reality. This is a psychological warfare waged by a perverse individual (or by a group) against an individual designed for one or another reason (generally, mobbing is motivated by jealousy, or some sort of basic frustration and insecurity in the mobber). Mobbing can be defined as any abusive behaviour, words (ridiculising, racist remarks, jokes), acts, writings, which can attack the personality, the dignity or the physical or mental integrity of a person, endanger her job or spoil the working climate. In English, a variant of this type of practices is colloquially called "sending someone to Coventry". This entails withdrawing all functions of responsibility from the victim, or giving her tasks not corresponding to her level of qualification. In the professional sphere, mobbing is generally "limited" to the psychological destruction of the victim (though there were reports, in France, of a mobber policeman who gave his lady colleague water from the W.C. to drink for several months - the policewoman eventually fell seriously ill). In school, what is then called "bullying" may go upto physical abuses of a humiliating nature (stalking, pushing, urinating on the person) besides "ordinary" psychological abuses such as neglect, threats, stealing, extortions.

Some recent cases of generalized abuse on some secondary school pupils in France have brought up the question of school violence. However, rather than simple occurences of what is called "racket", these seem rather to be phenomenons of real mobbing, put into place by some pupils on a victim, who is submitted to the whole array of psychological and physical abuses, with, at least, the complicity of the other members of the class.

The initiator of studies on the phenomenon of mobbing was a German psychologist, Heinz Leymann who, in 1992, analyzed it for the first time. The mobbing in the professional field can have two forms: it can be a vertical agression (a superior agresses a subordinate, (or vice-versa, but the latter case is much more rare). It can also be an horizontal initiative of work colleagues, or people in relation with the victim who mob the person in order that she may be forced to leave the company. Both forms are especially frequent nowadays, since strict regulations must be applied for dismissing people, and since the law of silence is more efficient in a context where people are afraid of losing their job.

The mobbing presents three stages:

1. In a first moment, the agressor deprives the victim of her personality. Here the mobber lets himself become indispensable (for instance by complimenting his victim, or by seeming to seek help from her). At the same time, the mobber seeks to isolate his victim from any person who might help her to think autonomously. In fact, the glitter and seduction exercised by the mobber is based on his secretive personality. However, after a phase of seduction, the mobber tries to impose his power on the victim.

Very subtly and perversly the mobber tries to sow doubt and suspicion among the colleagues of the victim, in order to deprive her of any support, and to let her become an absolute toy in his hands. Thus put under pressure, the victim looses any critical sense and is litterally broken down to bits by her agressor. We could compare the behaviour of the mobber to that of a saboteur who would destroy all the paths through which his victim could receive help, and thus leave her isolated and defenceless.

2. In a second moment, the agressor dominates the victim by controling all her expressions and doings, which are determined and powered by the mobber. In this second phase, the mobber tries to oblige his victim to react, in order to definitively discredit her. The reaction of the victim enables the mobber to appear as the victim of the fits of an unstable person. It is true that many times, the relationship between the victim and the mobber is complex, and one could describe it as being sado-masochistic.

3. The third phase sees the mobber print his mark on his victim. Hatred is then blandly expressed and his prey is, thus, destabilized.

When the possesion takes place, the victim suffers confusion and inability to think autonomously - she gets locked in the relationship with her persecutor. According to our correspondents of pesten.net (a Dutch web site specialized in helping the victims of mobbing) and researchers on the problem, this leads unassisted individuals to face extreme insecurity, depression, loneliness, fear, low self-esteem, sometimes leading to self-mutilation, thoughts about suicide, and actual suicide. Victims may also have major difficulties in entering into friendships and relationships. Such effects might last for many years,even a whole lifetime, if not dealt with properly. As an example, on www.pesten.net, the most requested term on the research engine of the site is "zelfmoord" - Dutch term for "suicide". The long-term consequences can be even more costly for the individual and the society: shock, shame, decompensation - the shock may even lead to a form of personality dissociation. Post-traumatic stress may leave traces which have been compared by some researchers to those left on persons having been in concentration camps.


The victim must never allow mobbing to become part of the normality: it is often better to break with the mobber, and provoke a crisis at an early stage, when all the psychical capacities of the victim are still relatively untouched. Psychological resistance and support is crucial, but unfortunately little reliance can be put on friends, for they are generally "contaminated" by the propaganda of the mobber. It is to be regreted, in that perspective, that modern society - especially among teenagers - puts the accent on the fact of belonging to a group, and thus hampers the capacities of the individual to think and to exist individually.

Caution must be used if one is subject to mobbing: never give in, but act to avoid being accused of wrong-doing. As the victim of mobbing is under close scrutiny, she must endeavour to give the best image of herself, but must also be on her guard in her relation with the others (and thus, simple precautions like, for instance, closing one's drawers with a key when going away are to be recommended). In order to avoid being unjustly charged with doing one's work badly, it is better to be maniacally precise and careful. The best reply to a mobber's attacks are humor, indifference and, if possible remain undisturbed. This will lead the mobber to pass to a higher level of mobbing, and thus maybe to betray himself. If a recourse to the Human Resources department is impossible - they are often not prepared (or not willing) to deal with mobbing - then, if sufferings are intolerable, the next best solution is the work-doctor. While often not prepared to deal with this problem, the work-doctors are getting more and more informed and are maybe somewhat readier to help the victim prove that she suffered mobbing.


The recourse to justice is one option - the Belgian Penal Code contains the incrimination of harassment (art. 442 bis), which is punished by fifteen days to two years emprisonment and a fine of fifty to three hundred francs - but this offence is very difficult to prove; hence the necessity, when one is the object of harassment, of accumulating proofs, and of being able to find independent and impartial witnesses. However, in a recent civil law case, a French first-instance court admitted the liability of a firm for mobbing. The firm in which this took place was thus condemned to pay damages to the widow of an employee who had committed suicide because he was being mobbed by his hierarchy. On a legal point of view, this action was brought against the employer on the grounds of ordinary civil liability (1382 C. civ.), and the lawyer was able to prove the causal relation between the persecution and the loss suffered.

Moral harassment is very difficult to discover: indeed, generally, for the reasons explained above, harassment is "invisible". The victims are ashamed and do not dare to denounce their agressor - who himself is cunning enough not to appear as an evil-doer. Eventually they might also face reprisals, when they denounce their agressor. Presently, there is increasing concern for mobbing - France is in the wake of penally incriminating moral harassment - but most counselors at school, and in the business world are ill-prepared to face allegations of mobbing.

In some firms, where competition is encouraged in order to bring the workers to be most efficient, mobbing, or behaviours promoting mobbing are considered as a daily management practice. This type of management practice is extremely frequent in a famous brand of American fast-food, which most students of St.Louis know. Fighting against mobbing thus also means fighting for a more human society, against those practices which aim to increase profit at the expense of the useless sufferings of workers.

The School and University world is a central point for the prevention of mobbing: this passes through the refusal of all humiliating practices which are falsely presented as "initiations". Called "bizutage" or "baptême" these rites are perfect trainings for the practice of sadistic behaviour on human beings; for the weakest among those submitted to these practices, it is the first step towards learning to be the perfect silent victim. Incriminating these practices is a step already taken in France, and which calls for serious consideration in Belgium.


The mobber operates by refusing direct communication: denying the existence of a conflict enables the mobber to paralyze the victim who cannot react to the agression.

The language of the mobber is deformed: reproaches or insults are never expressed directly, but implicitly - there is always a double meaning to his words. The sarcastic scorn of the mobber is accepted by the victim because she believes him to be superior, while, in reality, he is affected by frustration, complexes and insecurity.

This double language of the mobber and his subtle message perverts the behaviour of the immediate environment towards the victim, who is then perceived as being a problematic person. This leads to division, and thus to a further increase of the mobbers domination.

References: H. LEYMANN, Mobbing la persécution au travail, trad. Ed. Jacquemot, Paris, Seuil, 1996, price: 673 BEF.