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Germany

When Bosses Turn Bad

As anxieties grow that jobs may be cut in the wake of globalization, outsourcing or social and economic reforms, a further problem -- possibly even more damaging to a person’s self-esteem -- looms: mobbing.

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Around 1.5 million people in Germany suffer from mobbing.


People in the industrialized world spend about a third of their lives working, about half of their waking hours. So when something is wrong at work it has a big effect on a person’s life. Mobbing is the term for employers or co-workers who systematically, but often surreptitiously, criticize, harass, or otherwise discriminate against a fellow colleague. The effect of these attacks can often be devastating -- from feelings of shame and self-doubt, to depression, illness and even suicide.

As it continues over time mobbing can poison relations between colleagues and have a serious effect on people’s motivation and emotional well-being. It also has the tendency to grow and fester as more colleagues participate.

Frau telefoniert im Büro

The most common variation of mobbing is "bossing," when an employee’s superior is responsible for the attacks. Bossing is usually planned, intentional mobbing aimed at making a person so uncomfortable that ultimately he or she quits their job. That was the case of Petra, a young journalist at a publishing house.

"There was a real verbal suggestion -- I won’t say order -- just a verbal suggestion, to the department boss to squeeze me out. To get rid of me," Petra told Deutsche Welle. "And this boss carefully devised his plan. Before all this, I got along really well with the department head. But he just went ahead and did it -- for his own career!"

Intentional meanness

For Petra, her world fell apart. She had invested so much time and energy in her work, and she had gained respect from her colleagues. She had been heaped with praise and given bigger and better assignments. Then, suddenly, the situation changed. The exciting stories went to others and her own reports were not even published. She was told the quality of her work was lacking -- poorly researched and even boring. Petra listened to the criticism and tried to do better. But her stories were ignored by colleagues and the editor-in-chief.

"It took me awhile to recognize the intentional meanness behind it all. People were trying to take the enjoyment out of my work. I asked myself what I was doing wrong. Was it my fault? Was it really something to do with me? I kept thinking, my god, was I too superficial; had I missed the point of a story, or what? And really, it took a month or two for me to realize there was a strategy behind all this. After all, up until then, we had worked so well together."

High costs

Around 1.5 million people in Germany suffer from mobbing every day according to the German trade union federation DGB. But mobbing causes more than just bad blood and health problems. It also costs the companies where it happens a lot of money, in Germany alone, an estimated €50 million ($60 million) a year.

Mann flüstert einer Frau etwas ins Ohr

That’s because mobbing wastes time and energy. The mobbers are concentrating on their mobbing; those who have jumped on the bandwagon are busy following the latest events and the victim is working feverishly on a defense, provided they’re not already at home because they’ve fallen ill. In any case, those involved are not paying attention to their work. And bosses who think an employee that has been squeezed out and leaves of their own accord won’t cost the company any severance pay are sometimes mistaken.

Most victims of "bossing" incidents in Germany ultimately end up leaving their jobs. Petra was no different. She finally left her publishing job. Still, she was one of the luckier ones. She had a good lawyer who made sure she got a good recommendation and financial compensation.

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