Upward discrimination

What is upward discrimination?

This is where someone in a position of authority over others, such as a manager, becomes the target of a type of bullying by a number of staff. It has been referred to over the years as ‘mobbing’.

Doesn’t discrimination have to be based on race or sex?

Yes. In any discrimination claim against the employer, the claimant would have to establish that the harassment was on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation or religious belief.

This type of bullying may not necessarily be motivated by any form of unlawful discrimination. However, if a manager happens to be of a particular ethnicity, then a claim could be made for race discrimination. Similarly, if they are female, then they may claim for sex discrimination.

In practice, such claims are likely to be difficult for a claimant to file. In any harassment claim, the tribunal will need to be satisfied that the treatment (if established) is on the grounds of discrimination. Otherwise, it will be dismissed without a need to compare the treatment of another employee.

Who is affected by mobbing?

Mobbing can happen to any manager, supervisor or individual with responsibility for others in the workplace. You should be aware of it and be alert to the risks of prejudice, and must ensure policies are properly implemented to deal with such circumstances.

Research has shown that those exposed to the highest risk of this type of bullying are:



  • high achievers
  • enthusiastic
  • those with high integrity and ethical standards
  • promoters of human rights, dignity and respect
  • whistleblowers
  • those who do not join in with the destructive behaviour of the ‘in group’.

How does it take place?

The group basically ‘gangs up’ on someone in a position of authority. They may refuse to do jobs in the exact way they have been told but will still perform the job, or they may work at a slower rate than they do for other managers.

As a result, sickness levels may increase, or projects may even be sabotaged by deliberate errors to undermine the manager and their capabilities.

In other cases, the group’s activities may be harder to pin down. They may use tactics such as rumour, innuendo, trivial criticisms, discrediting, isolation and intimidation.

These acts aim to make the targeted person look responsible. Research suggests that such groups are genuinely convinced that the victim ‘deserves it’.

What is the impact of mobbing on the individual?

Victims may experience a variety of physical and emotional problems. In most cases, they will feel forced to leave.

Commonly, it will cause the individual to lose self-esteem and find it difficult to return to work in a similar capacity.

What is the impact on the employer?

Employers lose productivity, morale and profits when mobbing occurs. Companies affected by mobbing may experience a reduction in the quality and quantity of work, increased staff turnover and sick leave, loss of reputation or credibility and costly litigation.

There may be compensation claims for discrimination, personal injury and constructive dismissal where the mobbing has forced them to resign.

What can the employer do?

It is important that you develop equality awareness training that focuses on dignity at work and communicate this to all staff. Creating awareness of mobbing can help to prevent it happening in the workplace.

You should aim to establish that staff at all levels deserve respect as individuals. One problem is that many employees will engage in this type of behaviour without thinking or understanding the consequences of their actions. But after awareness and equality training, they may think twice before engaging in such activity again.

If awareness training does not prevent a mobbing situation arising, then it is important that you deal with the situation quickly. In many instances, there may be a ringleader inciting supporters and copycats.

Although mobbing is a ‘pack’ attack, if you are able to identify the ringleader, you should hold them accountable and follow the disciplinary process.

In every case, you should make it clear to all staff that such behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace and, if necessary, take disciplinary action against all staff involved.


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