By Maureen Duffy
Journalists want to report the news not be the news. But in the case of Ann Curry, the former Today show co-host who was pushed into stepping down from the co-anchor slot last June, she has become the news. New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s recent feature article about morning television and the toxic culture at NBC’s Today show provides more than enough information to conclude that Ann Curry was a target of workplace mobbing.
Whatever your personal opinions of Curry and her work, she was clearly mobbed out of her Today show job. Workplace mobbing is a process of humiliation and degradation of a targeted worker with the purpose of removing that worker from the workplace or at least from a particular unit of it. It is a dark side of organizational life, involves co-workers ganging up on the target, and includes management’s involvement through active participation in the mobbing or through failure to stop it once it becomes known to them. Mobbing in the workplace includes a characteristic course of events that were first described by Heinz Leymann, the psychiatrist who conceptualized the problem in the 1980s. Let’s look at what Stelter reports as having happened to Ann Curry through the framework of this pattern of events representative of workplace mobbing.
- Today was losing market share, critics were saying the show was stale and that there was no chemistry between the co-hosts Ann Curry and Matt Lauer. Understandably, management was concerned. Their solution, however, is a classic error of logical type. Blame an individual — in this case, Ann Curry — for what was obviously a much more systemic problem. (Precipitating event or situation)
- Once “the problem,” had been identified as Ann Curry, management’s next step, according to Stelter, was to mount a campaign to get rid of her and they even had a name for it, “Operation Bambi.” (Targeting of a worker for elimination and involvement of management or administration)
- Curry was subjected to a series of hostile, negative acts that by most people’s standards would be humiliating and hurtful. Stelter reports the making of a blooper reel that showed Curry’s worst on-air moments and blunders, the gathering of staff to watch a particular on-air gaffe and presumably to talk about it, the collection of boxes of Curry’s belongings in a closet as if she had already left, control room staff making fun of Curry’s clothing choices and “generally messing with her,” and the comparison of a yellow dress that she wore to Big Bird and photo shopping her head on to Big Bird’s image and then asking staff to vote on which one wore the yellow outfit best. (Unethical communication about the target and series of negative acts)
- Such negative acts, tailored to the particular work environment, are characteristic of workplace mobbing and serve several functions. They separate and exclude the target from the rest of the workplace, telegraph to other workers that the target is “damaged goods,” and encourage a general ganging up on the target. Once the target in a workplace mobbing has been cast as “other,” and as “less than” it’s much easier to further objectify that person and treat him or her callously. The negative acts can go on for months, as seems to be the case for Ann Curry, or even years as has been the case for others who have been mobbed in the workplace. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the human toll of psychological and physical suffering that such ongoing hostility and abuse causes. (Isolation and exclusion of the target, more ganging up, and resulting escalation of mobbing)
- On 28 June 2012, Ann Curry emotionally announced her departure from the Today show. It was clear to anyone watching her announcement that she was in pain and that she was not happy about leaving. The mobbing of Ann Curry was entirely successful. She was now gone from the Today show. Stelter notes that the executive producer led a group of Curry’s co-workers in a toast to her departure at a nearby restaurant only hours after her announcement that she was stepping down. Such cheering and celebrating after a successful workplace mobbing is common and fairly predictable. (Elimination from the workplace)
For most people who are victims of workplace mobbing, an unfortunate and common workplace event, the aftermath is difficult at best and disabling at worst. Income is lost, health and retirement benefits can be lost, reputation is damaged, professional identity is compromised as is the victim’s career trajectory, family and friendship relationships are strained, and the lingering traumatic effects of the interpersonal abuse and social exclusion at the heart of workplace mobbing can persist for a very long time. It is no surprise at all that Stelter reports Ann Curry as having described her experience as “professional torture.” Heinz Leymann called workplace mobbing “psychological terrorism.”
Ann Curry’s multi-million dollar salary may make the financial side of being a victim of workplace mobbing a lot easier for her than it is for most victims. I would assume, though, that her salary doesn’t ease the psychological and emotional pain she has had to endure and that is most likely her legacy from having been mobbed. While Ann Curry may not like the position of being the news, the story of how she was a victim of workplace mobbing is important. The stories of many others who have been victims of workplace mobbing but who are not public figures might more fully be understood through hers.
Maureen Duffy is a family therapist, educator, and consultant about workplace and school issues, including mobbing and bullying, and is the co-author of Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions and the forthcoming book, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying. Read her previous blog posts “Seven ways schools and parents can mishandle reports of bullying” and “Excluded, suspended, required to withdraw.”