di Linda Pollack-Johnson

Mobbing – What does it mean? What can we do about it?

Let’s hope that none of us have to encounter this word in our personal lives! It first came to my ears in the middle of a conversation, in Italian, with a Genovese friend a couple years ago. She had recently been elected to some level of government in Italy and one of her main responsibilities was to promote safer work environments, particularly for women.

She said that one of her greatest challenges was “mobbing”. She spoke as if I should know what the word meant, especially considering it was an English word. Various images of mobs raced through my mind, but I had no clue how this would relate to women in the workplace. I insisted that, as far as I knew, “mobbing” did not exist as a word in English. My incredulous friend finally described a few examples of this phenomenon and inspired me to do a little research on the topic.

The main thrust of the word is “harassment” but not “sexual harassment” nor “discriminatory harassment”. Women are not the only victims of mobbing, although in a patriarchal work environment, I suppose that women are more often the targets.

Wikipedia describes mobbing as “workplace bullying” of an individual by a group. The examples my friend gave made me understand that the intent was to motivate the victim to quit working either by manipulating the work environment so that the victim had either too much or too little work, and was therefore made to feel or appear incompetent.

The word has now been adopted as a loanword in German, Polish, Italian and several other European languages. It would be a “false friend” to translate it back to English with the same word. In English, the word still has a primary meaning of a disorderly gathering.

I’m relieved that the word has not gained traction in the U.S. We certainly do have our share of bullying in this country. We have witnessed this in the news media bringing us tragic reports of suicides committed by victims of such behavior. Schools across the country are putting in place “anti-bullying” or “zero tolerance” policies. Perhaps it is thanks to our more fluid hiring and firing practices that make an insidious strategy like mobbing less tempting in the U.S.

Questions to ask ourselves: How can we be proactive about this and ensure this word does not enter our world though it has entered our lexicon? Can we, as isolated linguists, work even more collegially to create an environment of collaboration and support? As we gain higher levels of certification, seeking to establish ourselves as professionals among the ranks of lawyers and accountants, can we still find a place for those linguists among us who serve our LEP communities in more “pro bono” capacities?

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