Bullying in the Schoolyard Is Not the Same as Workplace Bullying

One of the fundamental weaknesses of the anti-bullying movement has been the failure to adequately distinguish between school bullying and workplace bullying. This distinction is critical to informed discussion and effective policy because the two forms of interpersonal aggression reflect vastly different power relations. In bullying in schools, the instigators of the aggression are children, and the enforcers of policy are adults who are not under the authority of the children whose behaviors they control.

Conversely, in workplace bullying, the instigators are very often people in positions of organizational leadership. Reporting a bully in the workplace puts the worker at risk of being targeted for ever more aggression if the person they charge with bullying has authority or influence over other workers. When that happens, workers quickly mobilize to protect their own interests, align with management, and recast the reporting worker as a trouble maker who must be removed from the workplace. This latter process is termed "mobbing," which is distinct from bullying in that it involves a group of people who become increasingly aggressive and increase in size provided they have been told by management that a worker is unwanted, that any reports about the worker are encouraged, and that any adversarial action taken against the worker is acceptable.

People behave very differently in groups than they do as individuals, and by treating mobbing and bullying as the same process, and not distinguishing between the power relations of bullying children and enforcing adults, and bullying workers and enforcing workers, the anti-bullying movement has, however unintended, cast itself as a pro-mobbing movement. While purporting to condemn bullying, it has done no such thing; what it has instead promoted is the acceptance of shunning, gossiping, excluding, abusing, damaging, dehumanizing and eliminating anyone the larger group defines as a bully; in other words, it is considered quite alright to bully once the broader group reaches a consensus that the person targeted is a bully.

In a workplace setting, the consensus will almost always evolve to conform to the position of management that a particular "difficult employee" -- the one who differs in some marked respect, such as race, gender, age, political perspective or what have you; the one who has raised concerns about the workplace; the one who has made charges of discrimination or harassment; the one who has blown the whistle on unethical practices -- is the problem, and that worker must go. As the mobbing process develops, regardless of the worker's past history or popularity, gossip will circulate about the worker, labels and accusations will ensue, secretive investigations will rapidly frighten, anger and exhaust the worker while heightening tension and fear among the workforce, and the mobbing target will be isolated. The target will almost inevitably be labeled as bullying as they make every effort to fight back, object to the treatment, and exhibit the erratic behavior that comes of being mobbed and shunned.

In a school setting, reaching a consensus on who has instigated the aggression will be significantly less influenced by power relations. The "mob" that forms around a bully on the schoolyard is comprised of other children under the influence of one or a few aggressive children. Intervening in this mob will not cost teachers, administrators and counselors their jobs; their perceptions of the interpersonal aggression will thus be more objective, and they will have greater influence over the children's behavior if and when they do intervene.

The process of mobbing and the nature of group aggression has been poorly explored and rarely discussed in the anti-bullying literature, and the paucity of information on mobbing in comparison to that of bullying is striking. Vitriolic responses to any suggestion that the anti-bullying movement might constitute a witch hunt, cause more damage than it seeks to prevent or otherwise reflect weaknesses that merit examination demonstrate that group think over rational discussion has permeated the movement. Interpersonal aggression, exclusion, shunning and cruelty have no place in any organizational setting, and until the anti-bullying movement begins to explore the distinctions between bullying and mobbing, individual interpersonal aggression and group aggression, and schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying, the power relations that make "bullying" possible will remain hiding in the shadows, enabling anyone, no matter how committed to cooperation, compassion and kindness, to be bullied right out the door.