In order to understand the relationship between ethics and mobbing, it is useful to start by understanding the origin of the word ‘ethics’. This comes from the Greek ‘ethos’, meaning ‘way of being’. There is therefore an academic understanding of ethics, and a cultural understanding. Both are relevant here. Interestingly, the concept of mobbing has also been termed ‘moral harassment’, which helps to connect what has happened with the ethical implications of the actions.
Most workplaces now have a code of ethics which cover the concept of bullying. However, this essentially misses the point because it infers that the violence is inter-individual, or at most between a small group and an individual. Essentially the issue is reduced in the organisational culture to being a ‘personality clash’, where both parties carry equal responsibility. Any blame tends to be directed at the target for provoking or exacerbating the conflict. Mobbing is a much more diffuse issue. It is a collective, violent and deliberate process. People are familiar with the concept of bullying, but the concept of mobbing is less familiar and the individual psychology of either the aggressors or their victim provide no keys to understanding the phenomenon. The bullying policy is more likely to be used against the mobbing target than to be effective in providing any support for them.
Mobbers are not sadists or ‘bullies’ but ordinary people and mobbing is endemic in many organisations including universities. Therefore, the chances are that you have experienced it or have taken part in it. Seguin (2016) describes it as reminiscent of Stalin’s Moscow Trials: the targets are first convicted and evidence is later fabricated to justify the conviction. She describes it as ‘social murder’ and by definition a target cannot survive their own death.
Any attempt at defence is perceived as additional proof of the target’s ‘deviance’ and anything that they say, write or do will be used against them. It can be compared with rape, in that the target is deemed responsible for the violence that ensues against them.
I have described the mobbing process in another blog, but it essentially begins when a small group of instigators decides to cast someone out on the pretext that he or she is threatening their interests. It ends up poisoning the entire workplace or faculty for the target, using peer pressure to recruit a large majority. Those recruiters become either active or passive mobbers – it becomes very difficult for any onlooker not to become part of the mobbing process. Therefore at an ethical level, all witnesses are part of the process. Seguin (2016) describes universities as a breeding ground for mobbing, and all the aggressive tactics described her are used regularly. In some faculties it has gained popularity as a work method.
There is no protection for the target from the university administration and Harris (2013) strongly advises against involving HR, since their priority is not the protection of the employee but the protection of the university. Mobbed targets may expect their employer to protect them, and they can experience cognitive dissonance when they realise that no such help can or will be forthcoming. The consequences can be life threatening. An infamous Canadian case is that of Justine Sergent, a McGill University neurologist who committed suicide with her husband in 1994 after a two-year mobbing campaign in which she was accused of violating ethical research procedures.
Internal and external morality
In the professions, most ethical discourse is about how to protect clients from the professional. There are many rules about how we ensure that self-interest does not take precedence in this case. This is what is described as ‘internal morality’ (Butler, 2013).
However, when we consider how peers should behave together ethically, there seems to be a void. In the case of workplace mobbing, the issue is about the relationship between colleagues. These colleagues may be over/under/alongside us in terms of the overall hierarchy. There is nothing that defines the direction of mobbing. It can come from above, below or under.
There is nothing like the concept of ‘do no harm’. In fact, the opposite is the case in most competitive workplaces, and ‘bad behaviour’ is often richly rewarded. This is not always the case, but it happens often enough for one to ask the question about how and whether ethics is relevant in this area of practice. The area covered by this kind of ethics can be described as ‘external morality’. Essentially external morality is about the way that ethical behaviour is shaped by the environment within which professionals work. Therefore a highly competitive (toxic) work environment is likely to create a specific ethos. It can be usefully described as a ‘third party’ or ‘external’ shaping of the ethics of a professional group.
The importance of this distinction is that it helps to point toward an inevitable relationship between internal and external morality. Therefore, the context in which professionals work will inevitably shape how they relate to their clients and students. This should be common sense, but it is forgotten all too easily. An organisation that permits and encourages the abuse of its employees is unlikely to be one the can effectively serve the greater good.
In the following sections, I use traditional ethics as a tool to explore the issues that are cast up by workplace mobbing.
In terms of deontology, the relevant principles are non maleficence, and justice. In deontology, ethical behaviour is analysed by examining the rules, codes and maxims relevant to a situation. Behaviour is ethical if it is congruent with such shared rules and codes. One such shared rule is the rule that says that one should not drive more than 110km per hour. People look to the signs to tell them what to do, and in the absence of signs they match their behaviour to the norms of fellow drivers.
There are some rules about bullying and harassment in the workplace – but there are no rules about mobbing. This means that people set their behaviour according to the norms in the workplace. Every time someone gets mobbed, this becomes more of a norm, and it is more likely to happen again.
The individual employee may attempt to use the concept of ‘do no harm’ as a guide to behaviour. However, without the most scrupulous attention to avoiding gossip and being manipulated, anyone can be turned from a bystander to a perpetrator. Mobbing is subtle crowd behaviour and most of us are not aware enough about how we are affected by the groups we are in.
There is policy about health and safety and one should be able to expect that the workplace will not be harmful. However, most workplaces are far more concerned about the physical safety of their workers than about their psychological safety. Arguably, the psychological trauma of workplace mobbing is at least as significant as a severe physical workplace injury. Workplace mobbing is also associated with the physiological effects of extreme stress. These effects can shorten or end lives prematurely.
Utilitarianism is about achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Ethical choices are made by analysing the effects or consequences of acting. Behaviour is ethical if it creates more good than harm, preferably for the greatest number of people. However, this is always premised on careful discrimination about the quality of the ‘good’ that is being achieved. A small power gain for a number of people is unlikely to outweigh trauma for the target. There are significant health and moral issues associated with workplace bullying which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (Field) or death. Bullying and mobbing is therefore unethical because it results in harmful consequences for the the victim and for the organisation. For the organisation, it is likely to lead to a loss of productivity, increased turnover rates and low morale. It affects the ability of people to perform there roles and in academia this includes the teaching role. If students are going to learn, then teachers must be able to teach. The actions of a mobbing /bullying context in academia are likely to have harmful effects also for students.
Virtue ethics is about being the best person one can be. Ethical choices can be made by analysing the character or value of an action. Behaviour is ethical if it is in accordance with widely held virtues like honesty, trust, responsibility, respect, and fairness (Center for Academic Integrity, 1999). Mobbing and bullying behaviour breaches all of these values. It is a form of disrespect and it creates a hostile workplace in which trust is dissipated. This is not a simple equation and trust is a complicated virtue. It is not one that should be engaged with naively and it could be that mobbing and bullying is a mechanism to signal to an individual that they should not trust the people they are working with.
“Plausible conditions for proper trust will be that it survives consciousness, by both parties, and that the trusted has had some opportunity to signify acceptance or rejection, to warn the trusting if their trust is unacceptable”. (Baier, 1986)
There is something a bit absurd in bringing ethics in the context of workplace bullying and mobbing. There is no debate that this is incorrect behaviour and it seems pretty unlikely that anyone gets up in the morning and says “I’m going to be involved in mobbing this person”. However, since mobbing is such a common occurrence ethics is a ways of bringing the issue to consciousness. It is in sensitising conscience that ethical reasoning has its most potent tool.
Baier, A. (1986). Trust and Antitrust. Ethics, 96(2), 231–260.
Butler, M. (2013). Ethical Reasoning: Internal and external morality for occupational therapists. In L. Robertson (Ed.), Clinical Reasoning in occupational therapy: controversies in practice (pp. 31–44). Wiley Blackwell.
Gallant, T. B. (2012). The ethical dimensions of bullying. In Lester, J. (Ed.). Workplace bullying in higher education. Taylor & Francis Group.
Seguin, E., (2016), Academic mobbing, or how to become campus tormentors, retrieved on 8/1/22 from https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/academic-mobbing-become-campus-tormentors/