Resisting mobbing: the assertive option

Brian Martin and Florencia Peña Saint Martin

This is the English-language version of a chapter published in Spanish as "Resistiendo al mobbing: la opción asertiva", in Oliva López Arellano and Florencia Peña Saint Martin (eds.), Salud, Condiciones de Vida y Políticas Sociales. Miradas sobre México (Mexico City, Mexico: Ediciones y Gráficos Eón, 2015), pp. 167-188


Mobbing is the collective bullying of an individual, usually seen by the target and outsiders as highly unfair. Few studies have used a strategic perspective to examine how targets can resist mobbing, in part because targets and bystanders usually become paralysed. In developing a strategy for resisting mobbing, insights can be gained by drawing on ideas from the theory and practice of nonviolent action, also called civil resistance or people power. Because nonviolent action operates in very different sorts of arenas, it is necessary to identify its key features, which involve going beyond conventional politics and not causing physical harm, and the keys to its effectiveness, which include participation by many people and tactical acumen. Features of nonviolent action need to be adapted to the typical circumstances of mobbing. The result is a series of options not normally canvassed in studies of mobbing, including publicising attacks and inviting others to join in responses.


Mobbing is a horrendous experience for targets (Leymann, 1990; Peña and Sánchez, 2009). In workplaces, targets are attacked by co-workers, subordinates, bosses and/or a combination of these actors using a variety of techniques, including shouting, ostracism, assignment of trivial or onerous duties, demeaning comments, and spreading of rumours. This is also called workplace bullying; the term mobbing implies an attack by a group rather than by just one individual, which sometimes happens too, of course. Bullying can be done by a sole abusing boss or a neurotic co-worker, for instance. Mobbing is always an attack by a group, with group members acting separately or together but in a formal or informal organised way (What is mobbing?, 5 de marzo de 2013; Crawshaw, 2009; Einarsen et al., 2002; Westhues, 2006, among others).

Mobbing is distinguished from ordinary interactions by unfairness and dishonesty, which can be subtle or obvious, generally based on vested interests or negative emotions such as rejection, anger, envy, and jealousy. Shouting and verbal abuse used against one or a few individuals, but not against others, is an example of unfair treatment. Critical comments made about an individual, but not about others for equivalent behaviour, is another. Making up or twisting facts on purpose to discredit the target is dishonesty. What counts as mobbing behaviour thus depends on the circumstances; in workplaces, this is the so-called culture of the organisation (Arciniega, 2013). If foul language is standard, and nearly everyone uses it, then it is not a mobbing technique. Although depending on the context, it can also mean that mobbing has become part of the culture of the organisation. Similarly, if bosses give detailed and impersonal criticism for every shortcoming, regardless of who has fallen short, this bullying can be assumed or justified as "normal." Mobbing techniques thus are distinguished by transgressing the usual boundaries of proper behaviour in a context and by being selectively applied, namely to some individuals and not others.

Mobbing can also occur outside workplaces, for example in public arenas (including cyberspace), in voluntary organisations such as sporting clubs or church groups, and in neighbourhoods, unions and civil associations (Martin & Peña, 2013; Peña, 2009; Peña & Quiroz, 2009; Ramos & Peña, 2013, among others). The arena for mobbing affects the process through the resources available to attackers and targets, formal power relationships (such as supervisor-subordinate), expectations for proper behaviour, and the wider context.

Research on mobbing has examined a wide range of phenomena, including the profiles of mobbers and targets, prevalence of behaviours, formal remedies, impacts on targets, impacts on organisations, and organisational factors that affect the likelihood of mobbing (Bartlett & Bartlett, 2011; Einarsen, 1996; Leymann, 1996; Vartia, 2001). However, there has been relatively little study of the practicalities of responding to mobbing, from the point of view of targets and bystanders. Generally speaking, mobbing usually happens in a context of impunity. In the "preparation phase," (Westhues, 1998) targets are framed by mobber gangs as outcasts — people without value — in the organisation. The consequence is that it becomes politically unwise to defend them or even be on their side (Garfinkel, 1956). Also, afterwards when "the big fault" is found (or invented) to openly prove "what type of persons targets are" (Westhues, 1998) and start public attacks, this outcast image is reinforced and typically nobody will take their side. The impact of this dynamic is that targets and bystanders are paralysed, leaving the mobber gangs free range to act.

Because of this dynamic, targets seldom find ways to defend themselves, nor are witnesses fully aware of the unfair treatment that targets undergo or the deep suffering they experience. In writings and advice about mobbing, four options are commonly mentioned. One is simply to leave and find a different job: this is the strategy of exit (Hirschman, 1970). This option is often recommended as better than staying, but is very hard to accomplish and it is not always possible. A second option is to stay and to acquiesce, namely put up with abuse, which in the long term can lead to serious health problems. A third option is to seek help from bosses or human resources units: this is the strategy of voice (Hirschman, 1970). At the organisation level, this may be encouraged through the education of workers and the introduction of policies against mobbing. However, policies and formal procedures often are ineffective when mobbing occurs. A fourth option is to fight back against mobber gangs using their own tactics. This seldom succeeds and can lead to an escalation of the attack.

Lutgen-Sandvik (2006) is one of the few researchers to have dealt with resistance to workplace bullying. In her survey of bullied workers and witnesses to bullying, she documented a range of methods, including leaving, self and mutual advocacy, making formal complaints, confrontation, and withdrawing labour, thus including all the options mentioned above. Most of her respondents were bullied by an individual, usually a superior in the workplace hierarchy; resisting mobber gangs is an even greater challenge.

To stimulate thinking about responses to mobbing that empower targets and bystanders by helping them to resist effectively, it can be useful to look to other arenas where struggles take place. The most promising arenas for this purpose are ones involving a struggle against perceived injustice and/or dishonesty. This article explores the relevance of one particular approach to such types of struggle, called nonviolent action, people power or civil resistance. Nonviolent action is widely used in public arenas, for example by citizen movements against repressive governments. There is extensive research and practical experience with nonviolent action that can be brought to bear on the quite different sort of struggle called mobbing. Nonviolent action, applied in a mobbing situation, provides a fifth option for targets: the strategy of assertion.

In the next section, the concept and practice of nonviolent action are outlined and the characteristic features of successful nonviolent action are laid out. In the following section, these features are applied to mobbing, with modifications to take into account the different circumstances involved. The resulting approach is then illustrated by being applied to two cases of public mobbing. The final section summarises the key insights from this exploration into strategies against mobbing.

Nonviolent action

There are two main approaches to nonviolence, commonly called principled and pragmatic. The principled approach, which derives from Gandhi, rejects violence as unethical. It conceives nonviolence as a way of life searching for the truth, which means seeking justice while respecting others, including opponents. Applied to interpersonal conflicts (Weber, 1991: 60-65; see also Juergensmeyer, 1984), a Gandhian seeks to internalise the values of nonviolence as a way of life. This can include understanding the opponent, seeking win-win solutions and using ways of communicating that enable mutual recognition. Gandhians can use self-suffering - what Christians would call turning the other cheek - as a means of softening the hearts of others.

The principled approach, as applied to interpersonal conflict, assumes some approximate equality of power or the possibility of sharing a commitment to resolve the conflict. However, mobbing involves unequal power, with mobber gangs having more power due to numbers and/or hierarchical position. Furthermore, mobber gangs typically create conflict rather than seeking to resolve it. Hence, using conflict-resolution techniques may be inadequate.

The other main approach to nonviolent action, the so-called pragmatic approach, is based on using nonviolent methods because they are effective. Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, vigils, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and blockades (Sharp, 1973, 2005). A classic example is the salt march, a 24-day march to the sea in 1930 in India, at the end of which the marchers made salt from seawater, a form of civil disobedience against the British monopoly on salt production (Weber, 1997). Another classic example is the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, against racial segregation on the buses. Each case involved popular protest against a more powerful opponent, in support of greater justice and equality.

Methods of nonviolent action have been used to topple dictators in numerous countries, for example in Iran in 1978-1979, Philippines in 1986, Eastern Europe in 1989, Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000 and Egypt in 2011. These are sometimes called examples of people power or civil resistance (Ackerman and DuVall, 2000; Bartkowski, 2013; Schock, 2005; Zunes et al., 1999). They have also been used to oppose US involvement in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Use of nonviolent action is a promising way of promoting long-term improvement in society, though this is not guaranteed. For example, the Iranian revolution against the repressive Shah was followed by an equally repressive Islamic state, and Iraq was invaded despite worldwide protests.

Note that nonviolent action means that protesters do not use physical violence. The opponent, typically a government, can and often does use violence against the protesters. A conflict can be violent, with all the violence coming from one side. Most contemporary western social movements, for example the sexual diversity, environmental and peace movements, subscribe to nonviolent action.

Against a powerful, ruthless opponent, like the Nazis, many people assume that only violence can be effective, and dismiss nonviolent action. However, research on campaigns against repressive governments over the past century supports the opposite conclusion: nonviolent action is more likely to be effective than armed struggle, regardless of the repressiveness of the opponent (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011; Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005). Compared to violence, nonviolent action is more likely to win allies and to cause defections from the ranks of the opponent. Toppling a dictator requires changing the allegiance of the ruler's police and military; this is more likely through nonviolent than violent resistance. It is not well known that nonviolent action was used, with some success, against the Nazi occupation of Europe (Semelin, 1993).

Today, nonviolent action is a tool of struggle most commonly used in public struggles involving large numbers of people. What does it mean to talk of nonviolent action against a relatively small number of individuals, none of whom uses physical violence? To make this translation, here are what we consider to be the most relevant features of nonviolent action (see also Martin, 2015).

1. Beyond conventional action. Conventional political action includes lobbying, voting, court actions and election campaigning. Nonviolent action involves methods that are not routine or part of the system.

2. No physical violence.

3. Widespread participation possible. Some methods of nonviolent action, such as rallies and boycotts, allow participation by most people who want to be involved, including women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Most participants in armed struggle, in comparison, are young fit men.

4. Challenge to power. Studies of nonviolent action normally assume that the opponent has much greater power, whether coercive, economic, political or structural. A typical scenario is citizen protesters challenging a repressive government. When powerful groups, such as governments, use nonviolent methods against challengers, some nonviolence scholars say this does not count as nonviolent action. Others say any group can use nonviolent methods, but it is always important to look at the group's purpose, for example whether it is more or less freedom, fairness or equality.

Like any method of struggle, nonviolent action does not work automatically: success is not guaranteed. Calling a strike is unlikely to be effective if only a few people join. In a nonviolent campaign, several things contribute to an improved prospect of success (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011; Sharp, 1973, 2005).

These are some of the key characteristics of successful nonviolent action. The central idea behind this approach is forceful advocacy of a position while respecting the opponent, maintaining the possibility for conversion and dialogue, while avoiding physical violence.

It might seem on the surface that violence is necessarily more powerful than nonviolent action. The shortcoming of violence is that it helps unify the opposition and gives greater legitimacy to the opponent's counter-violence. Essentially, using violence plays to the strength of the opponent. When police use violence against peaceful protesters, this is widely seen as an injustice, with the possibility of mobilising greater support for the protesters and potentially leading to defections among the allies of the opponent. There are numerous cases in which police or military forces, instructed to attack peaceful protesters, have refused to obey. Defections from the dominant group are usually needed for the success of nonviolent challenges to government.

Nonviolent action and mobbing

Nonviolent action methods and strategies can be applied to the challenge of resisting mobbing, but the circumstances are usually somewhat different. Nonviolent activists typically confront a powerful opponent - most commonly a government - that has legitimacy attributed to a legally constituted authority as well as the capacity and authority to exercise violence. Mobber gangs, in contrast, are seldom formally constituted. In many cases in workplaces, the target's boss is a key member, often the leader, of a mobber gang, thereby providing some authority to the gang's activities. Even so, few mobber gangs have the formal authority of governments.

Governments have the capacity and authority to use violence, namely via police and military forces. In contrast, mobber gangs seldom have any authority to use violence; furthermore, in most cases of mobbing, no physical violence is involved. However, it should be noted that some targets are physically assaulted; this is more common in certain occupations, such as the military. In some cases of mobbing, police are called in to remove targets from the workplace. In a few instances, targets are framed, prosecuted and imprisoned. Nevertheless, few of the methods used in mobbing involve physical violence. Therefore, to apply ideas from nonviolent action to mobbing, it is necessary to translate some of the features to a different arena.

In interpersonal struggles, the analogue of physical violence can be interpreted in various ways, for example to be emotional abuse - sometimes called emotional violence. Another way of drawing an analogue to physical violence for the circumstances of mobbing is to liken it to the methods used by mobber gangs. Responding using the same methods as the mobber gangs is to challenge them on their strongest ground. For example, when a gang member shouts at a target, shouting back is likely to be counterproductive, because it turns an instance of abuse into an apparently equal contest, except that mobber gangs have all the advantages, typically higher rank, greater numbers and a well-developed capacity to act collectively.

One of the features of nonviolent action is that it goes beyond conventional and legitimate political methods such as lobbying and voting. In mobbing, the standard response using normal organisational processes is to complain to a manager or a separate unit such as human resources, or to file an official grievance. A direct action response, analogous to nonviolent action, does not rely on the usual or official processes available. Therefore, it means response by the target or by the target's supporters.

The hundreds of methods of nonviolent action are commonly divided into three categories: protest and persuasion, for example marches and rallies; noncooperation, for example strikes and boycotts; and nonviolent intervention, for example sit-ins and setting up parallel government (Sharp, 1973). In principle, each of these has analogues in struggles against mobbing. It is worth looking at each type of nonviolent action separately to see how it might be adapted for mobbing scenarios.

Protest and persuasion is the use of non-standard methods to present the point of view of the protesters, potentially with several purposes: to convince the opponent about the issue at hand; to demonstrate the seriousness of the protesters; and to win support from observers.

In a mobbing situation, protest-and-persuasion methods signal that the target is aware of what is happening and is willing to protest against it. If there is an audience, these sorts of methods have the potential to win allies.

An example would be a target preparing a leaflet about mobbing - and perhaps about particular incidents, and their effect - and passing it out to co-workers. In the public sphere, a leaflet is a conventional form of politics, except in authoritarian regimes. Within a workplace, distributing a leaflet is a significant departure from usual behaviour, and could even be seen as insubordination, reflecting the lack of free speech and civil liberties in workplaces (Barry, 2007; Ewing, 1977). Bureaucratic organisations can be likened to authoritarian states, except that physical force is not directly used by the authorities (Weinstein, 1979).

Noncooperation includes two major categories: strikes and boycotts. The usual idea of a strike is workers withdrawing their labour, but there are numerous other types of strikes: social, economic and political. Social noncooperation is especially relevant in interpersonal struggles. Some types are ostracism, boycott of social affairs, social disobedience and stay-at-home. In the nonviolent action literature, these are used by populations against oppressive rulers, but in mobbing these may be used against targets. Ostracism in particular is a common method used by mobber gangs. A lone target can hardly make an impact against a group by ostracism or a boycott of social affairs, and staying at home can be interpreted as victory by mobber gangs.

However, noncooperation can be an effective means of resistance if allies can be recruited. For example, if other workers learn about the mobbing and are willing to assist the target, they could refuse to interact with or assist members of the mobber gang. Imagine a staff meeting at which a target is the subject of unfair demeaning comments or loud denunciations. Supportive staff members could indicate their objections by not attending or, more dramatically, by walking out at the initiation of such abuse, if necessary under the pretext of not feeling well. (Indeed, they might actually feel unwell at witnessing abuse of their co-worker.)

A similar approach could be used by a target, withdrawing at the initiation of any overt abuse. This could be interpreted as defeat or, depending on the circumstances, as strategic withdrawal. If, for example, a boss is sometimes respectful and sometimes abusive, then immediately withdrawing in the face of abuse, with a pretext if desired, is a type of personal social ostracism.

Another scenario is unfair work assignments, either too trivial or too onerous. However, noncooperation, such as refusing to undertake work, is a risky option, because it can readily lead to formal sanctions by the employer.

Nonviolent intervention includes a range of methods, including fasting (a type of psychological intervention), sit-ins, interjections, and obstructions (types of physical intervention), overloading of facilities, guerrilla theatre and alternative communication systems (types of social intervention), stay-in strike, seizure of assets, and alternative markets (types of economic intervention), overloading of administrative systems, seeking imprisonment, and civil disobedience (types of political intervention). Many of these, with some modification, could be applied to mobbing situations, but there is little evidence that they have been.

Fasting is a technique demonstrating a person's willingness to suffer on behalf of a cause. Fasting by a mobbing target might be welcomed by mobber gangs - but it might also embarrass them, if others knew about it. Fasting by supporters is another possibility. However, in cultures where fasting as a method of protest is rare, this might not have the desired impact.

Sit-ins were famously used by African Americans in their struggle against segregation: they are a form of disruptive civil disobedience that appeals to a sense of fairness. In a workplace, a sit-in by a worker could readily be ended by an order from the boss. The only prospect of success would be if others - co-workers, customers or friends - could sit-in on behalf of the target.

Nonviolent interjection is a promising technique for allies of a mobbing target. If someone starts yelling abuse, for example, an ally could physically move between the attacker and target. If assigned duties are too onerous, allies could volunteer to do some of them; if they are too light, allies could offer satisfying tasks to complete - overtly or otherwise, depending on the circumstances. Allies could make responses to undermining comments, or help formulate appropriate replies, thus providing a sort of training in verbal defence.

A significant type of nonviolent intervention is to set up alternative systems for communication, transport, decision-making and production. Parallel government, for example, involves a full governing apparatus separate from the official government - potentially a government to take over following collapse of the official government. Within many organisations, alternative systems already exist, in that the official line of command is a facade, with real decisions being made by others, for example when the boss is a figurehead or is preoccupied with other activities, legitimate or not. To protect against mobbing, supporters of the target could set up alternative systems for allocating work, carrying out duties, reporting, and planning. Some communication and organisation are needed. Such a scenario would be most likely when opposition to mobbing has the potential of upsetting the organisational hierarchy.

This preliminary assessment of the relevance of ideas from nonviolent action for resisting mobbing reveals several things. There are many possible ways to resist mobbing that are analogous to nonviolent resistance to repression. However, a first task is recognising that mobbing is occurring. Far too frequently, targets and bystanders do not recognise it and do not understand what is going on. So, a very important first step is exposing it as an unacceptable behaviour. Once mobbing is recognised, exposing it can be either done by the target or an ally. Then, the study of nonviolent action can be used to inspire new options for resistance.

One of the important messages from nonviolent action is to go beyond conventional politics, yet not to engage opponents on their own terms, in particular not to use violence, because this legitimises the opponent's superior violence and reduces the likelihood of winning allies. Within organisations, this means not relying on formal processes such as grievance procedures but also not engaging in the abusive methods used by mobber gangs. Examples are being polite and calm in the face in insults, making protests aimed at co-workers and wider audiences, and using allies to support a sensible pattern of work. This approach of challenging mobbing can be called assertive resistance. It is intermediate between passivity and aggression and also different from using formal procedures. Regarding mobbing, the rule of doing nothing needs to be broken. Assertive resistance based on nonviolent action is an option.

To illustrate the possibilities for assertive resistance to mobbing, we present two case studies. One occurred inside an organisation, the other in the public domain. In each case study, we canvass each of the five types of responses noted in the introduction - exit; acquiescence; authority-intervention; in-kind response; and assertive response - giving special attention to examples of assertive resistance

Organisational mobbing in Mexico

In a Mexican university of social sciences with a trajectory of academic and administrative disorder due to political struggles that happened from 1968 to 1979 almost nonstop, the political strategy of exposing irregularities sometimes breached ethical boundaries when it involved inventing irregularities as a means of attacking "enemies." Mainly because of this, mobbing became prevalent and mobber gangs appeared because this strategy was successful many times. These groups reacted against chairs every time they tried to change the status quo, with mobbers improving their mobbing tactics over time. In the periods 1986-1989 and 2000-2003, the school had directors and academic-administrative teams committed to moving forward in academic and administrative terms. Mobber gangs fought hard to maintain the status quo. In each period, the director was the main target to stop any change and the main attack strategy was mobbing. The internal disorder gave mobber gangs a lot of informal power, control of many processes and negotiating capacity. They were also unjust and corrupt; mobbing strategies masked these actions in a very effective way by assigning blame to somebody else.

The 2000-2003 academic-administrative team was unaware at the time of the dynamics of mobbing as well as that the director was being mobbed. Despite this, she and her team resisted the mobber gang using various strategies. When mobbing targets are really on their own, they usually have little chance of success. In this case, the director was helped by the academic-administrative team, some professors, and some students who were repelled by unfair, dishonest, and malicious actions. These experiences can be used to illustrate several of the five ideal-type responses to mobbing.

 (1) Exit. Neither the director nor others on the academic-administrative team opposing mobbing resigned: they continued their efforts in the face of attacks.

(2) Acquiescence. The director and management team ignored some attacks, which is a type of acquiescence. They did this so they could concentrate on the most promising opportunities to resist.

(3) Authority-intervention. This university belongs to a big national institute, which rules it. Members of the mobber gang had links with the authorities of the institute at the time. Despite this, the team filed formal complaints about the actions of the mobber gang, especially when they were unlawful. Every time regulations were violated, the institute authorities were asked to intervene but, in the few cases they took some action, it was to support the mobbers.

(4) In-kind response. A tactic widely used in the university to expose "irregularities" is posting amplified letters on walls. In the case we are describing, the mobber gang often invented alleged irregularities. The academic-administrative team used the same method to "denounce" mobber gang lies.

(5) Assertive responses. The academic-administrative team opposed the attacks using various methods such as exposing misrepresentation of facts in writing. In a Technical Council session a member of the mobber gang had a videocamera to film the session. Every time the director spoke the camera was pointed at her; she openly "posed" confronting him in silence, spoiling their goal. A student used to point at her in the Technical Council sessions. She asked him loudly every time: "Don't be rude, stop pointing at me." These are examples of interpersonal noncooperation.

The mobber gang organised an internal assembly calling on everybody to attend in an effort to force the director's resignation. Notices were posted on the school walls inviting everybody to the meeting. On the day of the assembly a spokesman (a male administrator with tenure) went to the office of the director to "invite her politely" to go to the assembly to talk to them. It was a trap, so she politely refused to go. Few of the school's members went to the meeting either. This was the organisational equivalent of a boycott, a standard method of nonviolent action.

The management team at some point became aware that one of the mobber gang's main goals was using the team's time and diverting its attention. By doing this, important projects were going to stop and then the team was going to be accused of being inefficient. The core of the assertive response was to continue making improvements. Despite the continued internal struggle, special budgets were obtained though strategic projects evaluated by third parties. The university, competing against 16 other projects, won the support of the Japanese embassy to purchase equipment for its laboratories; it also received special budgets from the Minister of Education for the intranet, among other successes.

Public mobbing in Australia

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) was set up in 1994 as a citizens' group concerned about the risks of vaccination and supporting parental choice in children's vaccination. The AVN published a magazine, ran a website, put out media releases and sent emails to its members. The AVN's founder and key figure until 2013, Meryl Dorey, regularly gave public talks and media interviews.

In 2009, a different citizens' group was set up, called Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN). Its stated purpose was to shut down the AVN. SAVN is a network, coordinating its activities through a Facebook page. SAVN's activities have included making derogatory claims about the AVN, making dozens of complaints to government agencies about the AVN, and attempting to block talks by Dorey (Martin, 2011, 2012).

For the purposes here, one particular SAVN tactic warrants attention: abusive comments and images about Dorey on SAVN's Facebook page and on blogs, for example calling her a liar and making fun of her. The personal abuse of Dorey by some people involved with SAVN - not all do this - continued for years. In addition, Dorey received threats and pornography by post, phone and email. Because of the threats, some speaking venues requested the AVN to hire security guards. (SAVN participants deny that they have made any threats and disown the sending of pornography.)

The treatment of Dorey fits most of the usual criteria for mobbing: it was persistent, prolonged and degrading. Because it took place in the public domain rather than inside an organisation, it can be called "public mobbing" (Martin and Peña, 2014). There are some differences between public mobbing and intra-organisational mobbing, for example that the target of public mobbing is not subject to sanctions by an employer. For the purposes of examining nonviolent-action tactics, the advantage of looking at public mobbing is that more of the tactics and responses of the mobber gangs are in the public domain. Dorey and other AVN members responded to abuse in various ways, illustrating all the options described earlier for dealing with mobbing.

(1) Exit. Some AVN members withdrew from any public engagement. Dorey continued to campaign in the face of ongoing abuse until 2013, when she took a lower profile role.

(2) Acquiescence. In some cases, Dorey ignored the abuse. This seems to have had little effect on its continuation.

(3) Authority-intervention. In some cases, she made formal complaints, for example to Facebook. This seems to have annoyed and provoked SAVN, generating greater activity. Given Dorey's defence of the AVN on the grounds of free speech, SAVN participants see complaints as hypocritical, namely an attempt to curtail their own free speech (to criticise Dorey and the AVN).

After Dorey complained to Facebook about SAVN's page, it was restricted to viewing by friends only. However, SAVN set up a new page, continuing where it had left off. Months later, SAVN opened its original page to all viewers. Dorey's complaint thus had little impact on SAVN's behaviour.

(4) In-kind response. In a few cases, Dorey responded with negative comments about SAVN. This seemed to provoke people in SAVN, causing an outpouring of complaint. Making personal comments about SAVN participants is analogous to using violence against superior violence: it often legitimises the violence by the more powerful side, and thus is counterproductive. Analogously, when Dorey said even the slightest negative things about SAVN, this appeared to legitimise SAVN's voluminous negative comments about Dorey.

(5) Assertive response. In some cases, Dorey posted SAVN's abusive comments on her blog. This is an assertive sort of response: it exposes the abuse to a wider audience, with the potential to damage SAVN's credibility and to bring others into the struggle on her side.

In some cases, abusive language by SAVN participants was seen - by other SAVN participants - as too extreme. Similarly, the sending of pornography has been disowned by SAVN. These self-restraint responses within SAVN followed exposure of their behaviours to wider audiences. It is unlikely that these would have occurred using the passive, official-channel or in-kind responses.


In real life, there is confusion when a target is attacked by a mobber gang: seldom is it recognised properly. However, even when they identify what is happening, targets and bystanders often are paralysed, letting actions continue without open opposition. This gives gangs of mobbers clear advantages to continue their behaviours. In addition, in the mobbing literature, there is relatively little attention to strategies of resistance used by targets (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2006, is a notable exception). The usual assumption seems to be that solutions must come from above, either through human resources or union interventions, as well as education or through introduction of laws and other processes to handle complaints. These approaches can sometimes be effective, but given the frequency of mobbing and the serious damage it causes, it is useful to explore other approaches.

The approach taken here is to draw on the extensive experiences and theoretical work about nonviolent action against repression to stimulate thinking about how to deal with mobbing. Nonviolent action can be characterised as action that goes beyond conventional politics but avoids violence against opponents, though opponents may and often do use violence against peaceful protesters. Given that nonviolent action has been the primary means used in many impressive challenges to repressive regimes, as well as the method of choice by numerous contemporary social movements, it seems worthwhile to try to translate the nonviolent action approach into the typical circumstances of mobbing. We outlined five ideal-type responses to mobbing, from the point of view of targets.

(1) Exit, for example quitting a job to escape.

(2) Acquiescence, namely not resisting attacks, nor reacting emotionally with obvious distress.

(3) Authority-intervention, which typically involves making formal complaints or seeking support from designated officials such as human resources staff.

(4) In-kind response, namely using the same sorts of methods that mobber gangs use against them.

(5) Assertive response, which is using various methods of resistance without responding in-kind. The assertive response is analogous to nonviolent action in the political sphere. By drawing on and creatively elaborating on the large repertoire of methods of nonviolent action, it is possible to think of numerous ways of responding to mobbing, many of which have received little attention in the literature.

This has a direct parallel with people's experience with nonviolent action. In many situations in which populations have been oppressed, the main options have seemed to be escape, acquiescence, negotiation, or armed struggle. The option of nonviolent action may seem foolhardy: too risky in the face of the overwhelming capacity of the state to use violence against resisters. The genius of nonviolent activists is to use the power of the state as a lever to generate greater support: with proper preparation, the odds can be increased that violence against peaceful protesters will stimulate greater opposition, namely be counterproductive for the attackers (Sharp, 1973: 657-703).

In the case of mobbing, the challenge for targets is to select methods of resistance that put mobber gangs in a dilemma: if they ignore the resistance, their capacity to cause damage is thwarted; on the other hand, if they escalate their attack, this may be seen by observers as unfair and galvanise greater resistance. Potential targets who develop skills for resisting, and are able to demonstrate them, are probably less likely to be attacked: skill development and preparation can serve to deter as well as resist mobbing.

The application of ideas from nonviolent action to the circumstances of mobbing remains to be elaborated, applied and evaluated. As with nonviolent action in public arenas, there is no guarantee that assertive resistance will be successful. Learning from experience will be necessary, by targets and their allies and by researchers. The aim here has been to introduce the assertive approach and suggest its potential as an avenue for future research and practical action.


We thank Jørgen Johansen, Stellan Vinthagen, Tom Weber and Ken Westhues for valuable comments on a draft of this paper.


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Martin, B., & Peña, F. (2014). El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características. In N. González (Ed.), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad. Salud mental, ambientes cotidianos y vida laboral (pp. 91-114). Toluca, State of Mexico, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México.

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