How To Handle “Mobbing” Or Other Types Of Workplace Bullying

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Many people assume that once they leave school, their risk of being bullied drops to zero for the rest of their adult lives. However, this is not always the case.

Workplace mobbing—a form of bullying that involves the intentional targeting of a coworker through isolation, humiliation, and/or aggression—takes place between adults in many work environments.

While this particular term isn’t widely known, the concept it refers to is familiar to many. Let’s explore what mobbing is in more detail and look at how to cope if you’re experiencing it at work.

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Experiencing interpersonal issues at work?

What is mobbing?

In one of the first academic papers on the topic, researchers Shallcross, Ramsay, and Barker define mobbing* as “a deliberate attempt to force a person out of their workplace by humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse, and terror.” Mobbing tends to be executed by a leader—who may be a manager, a coworker, or a subordinate—who then rallies others into engaging in systematic and frequent “mob-like” behavior toward the target. Other terms for mobbing at work include workplace bullying, group bullying, and workplace aggression. 

*Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Some sources estimate that as many as four in 10 professionals have been bullied by a coworker in the past. Causes of this type of behavior can vary. In some cases, the key aggressor may have a personality disorder that allows them to display charming, charismatic behavior in order to recruit others into these abusive acts, and then to switch to aggression toward the target. In other cases, low self-esteem, insecurity, past trauma, a difficult home life, or social conditioning and pressures could play a role in why someone may exhibit this type of behavior toward another.


The five stages of workplace mobbing

Understanding the stages of mobbing in the workplace can help you recognize when it may be happening to you or a colleague so you can take appropriate action, such as reporting the issue to HR. The phases of development of a mobbing situation* as outlined by another, more recent key paper on the subject are as follows.

*Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

The disagreement stage

This stage is when a target is identified, which often happens due to a disagreement during a critical incident. This could be differing opinions on how to approach a project, the target receiving praise or a promotion that the aggressor wanted, or some other conflict, whether real or perceived by the aggressor. From here, the conflict may be settled or forgotten, or it may escalate into mobbing.

The aggression stage

If the conflict is not settled or forgotten, mobbing may begin during the aggression stage. This phase is characterized by psychological assaults, which could include things like repeated negative comments about a person’s appearance or lifestyle, harmful practical jokes, the use of offensive language, humiliation in front of other colleagues, shunning or excluding them from group activities, etc. These assaults can take a variety of different forms, but all can make the target feel isolated, embarrassed, fearful, or otherwise harmed.

The institutional power stage

The next tactic of the abuser may be to try and involve management in their vendetta against the target. They may make false claims about the target or blame the conflict they themselves caused on this person. Since the aggressors are often charming and charismatic, their story may be believable and management may take their side. At this point, the target may realize that they do not have the support of management, making them vulnerable to further abuse.

The description stage

In this phase of mobbing, the aggressor may begin to plant false seeds about the target and their character in the minds of others they intend to recruit. For example, they may begin to frequently describe them as too sensitive, unable to take a joke, difficult, strange, unstable, or any number of other labels designed to make it easier for others to join in on the assaults.

The expulsion stage

This final phase relates to how the target copes with the aggression that’s been enacted toward them. Since they’re unlikely to report the issue to management because of the groundwork the aggressor likely laid in the institutional power stage, they may choose to leave their job entirely. Or, if they’re unable or unwilling to leave, they may become resigned to the abuse, which can have various negative mental health consequences. An individual may develop anxiety, depression, or even trauma-related issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of this kind of ongoing abuse.

Who might be targeted for mobbing behavior?

Anyone can be a target of workplace mobbing, but there are some trends. Research indicates that “economically and/or socially disadvantaged groups” are typically more vulnerable to workplace bullying, as are those from lower-income groups. It may also be more likely to occur in organizations with poor or disorganized management, those with few opportunities for advancement such as universities with tenured faculty or unionized organizations with strong contracts, or in fields traditionally dominated by one gender.

Experiencing interpersonal issues at work?

How to handle mobbing

Being aware of the typical stages of how mobbing escalates can help you recognize when it may be happening to you so you can take action. If you notice any of the warning signs, you might try to set firm boundaries with the aggressor. While this won’t be effective in all cases, it may help set a precedent of respect early on in others. 

If this type of behavior occurs more than once, you might also consider keeping a log of each incident. Write down the date, what happened, and whether there were any witnesses. You can then take this information to your company’s HR department or to another management authority above your aggressor and use it as proof of what’s been happening. No one should have to tolerate abusive behavior in any setting, including in the workplace, so you have the right to speak up for yourself if it occurs.

Coping with the effects of mobbing

If you’ve experienced mobbing in the past, it may have left you with some difficult memories, emotions, and perhaps even symptoms of a mental health condition. Therapy can be a useful tool in processing these experiences so you can move past them. A therapist can provide a nonjudgmental listening ear as you work through these events and can help you rebuild your self-esteem and otherwise heal from how you were affected.

If you’re interested in seeking therapy, you have options to choose from. If you’d like to connect with a mental health professional in person, you can look for a provider in your area. If you’d prefer to speak with someone from the comfort of home, you might consider virtual therapy instead. BetterHelp is an online therapy service to consider, through which you can get matched with a licensed therapist. You can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from home or wherever you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy sessions can offer similar benefits to clients in many different types of situations, so online therapy may be worth exploring if this format appeals to you. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

Counselor reviews

“Dr. Forrest was great in helping me deal with my anxiety and depression. She was also very helpful in helping me deal with conflict resolutions within my workplace. I am much happier and better because of her advice!”

“Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things; I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gaining the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and, most of all, my company. I really like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can’t wait to see where I am after working with her for a year!!!”


Mobbing is a term that describes a particular type of aggression and abuse in the workplace. Setting boundaries, keeping a log of incidents, and speaking with management or HR about the situation are typically recommended courses of action. If you’re having trouble coping with the effects of workplace bullying, speaking with a therapist may be helpful.
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