How to control workplace cruelty

Ann Curry (Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

FORTUNE — Ever get a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach? The kind you might remember from grade school, maybe when you started a new academic year. Or perhaps it comes on Monday mornings as you dress for work.

For some, that feeling is daily routine. That lack of feeling safe — either physically, emotionally, or both — takes its toll on creativity. And it is pervasive in too many corporate workplaces.

The statistics on physical violence in today’s workplaces may surprise you. “Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace,” the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports. OSHA says that many cases of workplace violence go unreported, but that “nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year.” While some large companies have screening to keep weapons out of the workplace, many businesses are completely vulnerable to mass or pointed attacks.

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Miki Kashtan, co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, writing about December’s Newtown tragedy, eloquently described the importance of violence prevention. Our capacity to exhibit compassion and help others feel like they matter can make a huge difference, she says.

The use of physical force is, of course, just one part of the hostility problem at corporations today. Non-physical cruelty is prevalent, argues Maureen Duffy, co-author of the book Mobbing. This type of aggression, which is commonly targeted at those who are different, can lead to significant physical and psychological trauma; consequences that corporations too often ignore, Duffy says.

Companies are communities. I speak with people at hundreds of firms every year. Some workplaces are friendly; others are not. (Platitudes about corporate mission on a company’s telephone hold muzak don’t correlate directly with courtesy, by the way.) And some people are friendly, and others aren’t.

Just as with certain species and the environment, some people are more vulnerable to toxic atmospheres than others. Pyschologist and author Elaine Aron has written powerfully about highly sensitive people, who can provide huge benefits to a workplace but have extra-low tolerance for meanness or sensory overload.

While some boards of directors are acutely aware of the importance of corporate culture (some rank it in the top few categories of their oversight responsibility), some never consider the issue at all — or only sporadically, like before and during a merger when two company cultures combine.

Bullying in workplaces is often viewed as a one-on-one event. But the problem with placing the blame on just one individual is it that it lets organizations, their management teams, and boards off the hook, says Duffy.

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While managers are familiar with the idea of bullying, the concept of “mobbing,” a term coined by Duffy and her co-author Len Sperry, is less understood. “Workplace mobbing,” Duffy says, is “nonsexual harassment of a coworker by a group.” The purpose is to remove the individual from a particular unit or from the larger organization, which may occur through termination, medical leave, or quitting. Whether or not the group is successful in removing the individual, “this typically protracted traumatizing experience” often results in humiliation and degradation “with significant financial, career, health, and psychosocial losses,” Duffy says.

Although it’s not often discussed, workplace mobbing is common. You’ve probably witnessed or experienced some of the common attributes of mobbing yourself: excessive criticism, personal attacks, or devaluing; the spreading of false information that doesn’t get corrected; isolation or removal from communication loops.

What happened to Ann Curry at the Today show is a classic case of mobbing — and it’s rare to have such a public view. “General meanness on the set,” “the growing indifference of her co-host Matt Lauer,” disrespectful co-workers, humiliating antics, and the cruelty of Jim Bell, her executive producer, who himself has since been booted to another role, all contributed to Curry’s traumatic experience, the New York Times reported. “Curry felt that the boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at Today undermined her from the start, and she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture.”

“Mobbing is devastating,” Duffy says, because there are “few more basic injuries than social exclusion or ostracism. The behaviors are often done under the pretense the individual doesn’t need to know, so it looks like business as usual.” But the opposite is the case. The individual is being shunned.

To add insult to injury, other coworkers who may be distinct from the perpetrators may also distance themselves because they don’t want to be the next target. (This can also happen in layoff situations to individuals who are being let go.) This just adds to the level of isolation targeted individuals feel.

Does mobbing tend to get directed at certain kinds of individuals? Duffy says that, so far, findings on this are all over the map, and that it appears any personality profile can be mobbed.

But groups are more likely to mob those who are different from the organization’s norm, she says, and often, the best and brightest are targeted. Sometimes, the person attacked has a different communication style (direct vs. indirect) compared to others or is outspoken and willing to call out a problem. The person may have a different sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, or national background from the others in the group. High sensitivity would be another a difference, she says.

What can managers and coworkers do to prevent mobbing? The first step, Duffy says, is to recognize that mobbing always involves the organization’s consent, tacitly or explicity. Leadership and individuals must promote civility and address any negative communication loops in the organization. Caring environments, where individuals pay attention to the quality of communication, prevent mobbing, she says.

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Organizations can also promote a no-gossip culture. Some firms have instituted no-gossip rules, Duffy says, and ask employees to focus instead on their company’s mission, tasks, and goals when they communicate with each other. Duffy suggests companies develop anti-mobbing and bullying policies, and educate managers and staff on an ongoing basis on these issues.

Based on my experience, mobbing doesn’t just occur in the corporate trenches. Adults in their 60s engage in mobbing in some boardrooms, where a particularly bright, outspoken director may be ostracized or pushed off the board. And awareness is low. At all levels, organizations need to pay attention to indicators like turnover of highly productive and creative people.

But more employees are suing for emotional abuse, bullying, and mobbing, these days, Duffy says. Some are winning large awards. Meredith Boucher sued Wal-Mart (WMT) for emotional abuse and won a $1.5 million verdict in court last year.

“Workplaces should be emotionally safe places,” Duffy says. “It’s a basic worker’s right.”

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (, a board advisory firm.

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