Hermit Crabs in the Workplace: Mobbing and Bullying

Have you seen the latest research out of University of California, Berkeley (my alma mater-but don’t hold that against me or the article) on animal social behavior?  As a social psychologist, I have been trained to be interested in group behavior and its social consequences –the field did get much of its standing from studying the holocaust underpinnings (i.e. just following orders, de-individuation, propaganda and so on.  The workplace fascinates me just as equally, not only because I’m in upper management, but because you can see the best of behavior and the absolute worse.  One vehicle for bringing out the worst behavior is critical feedback-I’ve already brought that up numerous times.  Another is what I will call from now on the “hermit crab” of the workplace.   Hermit Crabs in the workplace are ostensibly annoying little human beings that are trying to incite gossip, mob behavior and overall bullying.  So, let’s backtrack.


See, the latest animal research found that terrestrial hermit crabs have been observed grouping together to ‘evict’ a larger hermit crab from its shell, and then each trade up with each other to each get a larger shell.  It’s outright bullying behavior out in the wild.  As hermit crabs grow they require larger shells. Since suitable intact gastropod shells are sometimes a limited resource, there is often vigorous competition among hermit crabs for shells.  That competition instead of an individual completion becomes a group mob attack led by the bullies.  Does this not sound familiar to the workplace bully? Hence,-the designation “hermit crab in the workplace”

This hermit crab human creature oftentimes works in the following way. Whenever there is a new team member to the group or to the office, in general, they make immediate plans to befriend that person in the hopes of getting their newest “best friend.”  This hermit crab befriends others immediately upon arrival to try to lay their claws (do hermit crabs have claws) in deep. As Dr. Laidre, noted when commenting on this research out of UC Berkeley, “for hermit crabs, it’s really their sociality that drives predation.”  The hermit crab pretends to be very social and will pursue social activities but will do so in a very much venomous way.  For example, the hermit crab may go in to a common workplace area and specifically try to socialize with two of the four people in that area and make the other two feel completely left out. That is her/his predatory nature. The hermit crab will socialize with the newbies and then proceed to gossip about those individuals.

The researchers note the process of shell eviction in the wild: “When three or more terrestrial hermit crabs congregate, they quickly attract dozens of others eager to trade up. They typically form a conga line, smallest to largest, each holding onto the crab in front of it, and, once a hapless crab is wrenched from its shell, simultaneously move into larger shells.”  I hate to say it, but I have actually seen this type of behavior literally occur in the workplace. That is just the saddest thing ever. It is amazing how animal-like (predatory) our workplace colleagues can be.  Basically, hermit crabs engage in “mobbing,” in which a group of people gangs up on another worker.  It often hides under the appearance of humor or group teasing but it has a nasty undercurrent to it.  Some hermit crab species are used as bottom-feeders or rather they are used in household aquarium as scavengers, because they eat algae and debris. Ok, I’m going back to calling them bottom-feeders.  According to a 2007 survey conducted by Zogby International, almost half of U.S. workers report that they have experienced or witnessed some kind of bullying on the job – insults, threats, screaming, or ostracism. In a very odd findings (for me)  the Workplace Bullying Institute (2007) found that Hispanics had the highest prevalence rate of  experienced (current and ever)  bullying.  I am not quite sure what to make out of that statistic. Is the type of jobs and environments in which Hispanics work that lend themselves to enhanced bullying towards Hispanics?

So, what can we do about these workplace hermit crabs?  In the wild, hermit crabs have long, spirally curved abdomens, which are soft, unlike the hard, calcified abdomens seen in related crustaceans. Thus, their abdomens are somewhat vulnerable.  Take from that what you will (overfeed them, sucker punch in the stomach-not that I would l advocate violence…).  Anyway, hermit crabs, despite that hermit name, appear to be best in groups. If that is the case, the best remedy is to isolate them!  Alone, they have no power, no one to prey with.  As a manager, remember the 360-degree performance review tool that can shed light on how a person behaves when management is not around.  And, next time you see one acting up in the workplace call them out on their behavior and tell them to stop being such a hermit crab and go crawl under a different shell.


[You can find the hermit crab article here by the way:]

4 replies »

  1. I am interested in finding out if I am a bully. I was accused without warning or explanation of being hostile and a bully. I live near Berkeley (also a grad of) and would appreciate a referral to a psychologist who could help me accept responsibility if it is true or learn to live with the damage to my mental health if it isn’t. I took leave after this accusation due to depression, and it looks like I will lose my job.


    • Hi there. Wow. sorry to hear of your situation. First thing I would advise is that you go to your employee assistance program (EAP). If your HR is part of the larger ADP network they will have hose services. I no longer live in berkeley and thus cannot refer to anyone specifically there. You could probably also request mediation at work or further explanation of the situation.
      Hope thing improve for you.


  2. I’ve been a victim of mobbing behaviour in the workplace for several years. It’s hard to get support for this sort of bullying. I’ve created a forum specifically for victims of mobbing to discuss their experience and ways of dealing with this form of abuse.


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