Facing Up to Bullies in the Workplace

How do we recognise workplace bullying, and how do we draw the line between what is funny and what is offensive? CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, Nicholas Goh offers a tip sheet to deal with such situations.

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Singapore, Singapore (PRWEB) February 06, 2014

A quirky regional manager comes under fire for sending inappropriate emails to his coworkers. An obnoxious travelling salesman stops by the office and makes one too many sexist comments, raising the ire of the female employees — and also the question of workplace bullying. All incidents within an episode of “The Office” titled “Sexual Harassment”.

How do we recognise workplace bullying? When employees cry foul, are they being overly sensitive or do they have cause?

How do we draw the line between what is funny and what is offensive? CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, a leading Global Content Consulting Company - Nicholas Goh offers a tip sheet to better deal with such situations at the workplace.

The office is a second home, so it is said. However, when people work in proximity for five days a week, interpersonal problems are likely to arise. In turn, hostility may fester.

Workplace bullying is becoming a prevalent social problem. In a 2012 online survey conducted by JobsCentral, 24% of Singaporean employees said they were victims of workplace bullying. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, in 2012 there were 51,670 cases where employees sought labour counselling because they were bullied at work.

1. What Constitutes Bullying?

In May 2013, a 17-second video of a Singaporean intern being repeatedly slapped by his boss surfaced on the Internet. It was later revealed that the abuse ran deeper than just physical and verbal assault; the 29-year-old intern had been working at the software company for three years, taking home a minimum wage of $500 a month. Not only did he work many late nights, he was also not entitled to any benefits such as annual leave.

Where physical or verbal abuse has occurred, the bullying becomes clear-cut. Other forms of bullying, however, may be more subtle. Take sexual harassment for example. In a public opinion survey by Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), over 50% of Singaporean employees—out of 500 males and females—said they had experienced sexual harassment at some point. 30% of them said the harassment was repeated.

What is regarded as harassment can be highly subjective. To some, a gentle slap on the buttocks may just be a playful gesture, but to others it could amount to molestation.

2. When Funny Goes Overboard

Men are not always the perpetrators of sexual harassment debacles. In 2009, an email sent by a female graduate trainee at accountancy firm Deloitte quickly became a talking point. In the email, the employee asked her female colleagues to vote for their male counterparts in categories such as “Fittest Boy – Body”, ”Best-dressed Boy” and ”Boy Most Likely to Sleep His Way to the Top”.

It was all in the name of good-natured fun; the votes would be gathered for an award ceremony to be held during the office’s Christmas party. Her male colleagues even gladly nominated themselves. However, the email went viral and soon her managers got wind of this matter. The said employee resigned the next day. In an official statement, a Deloitte spokesman expressed disappointment in her behaviour and advised all to exercise discretion when sending emails.

An office prank could also escalate into a lawsuit. Such was the case of Harvey Palacio, the Intel employee who sued his employer in 2013. As part of a prank, his colleagues taped a ‘Kick Me’ sign to his back. They kicked him—a few times in the buttocks—even when he sought help to remove the sign. Because of this incident, Palacio suffered emotional distress.

3. Defining Bullying

Office jokes and pranks are pulled on a regular basis, but at what point does entertainment turn into harassment? If a supervisor is quick to berate a subordinate over a mistake, is it verbal abuse or just a management style? Is it bullying if a superior constantly inundates a junior employee with assignments? These are grey areas. It is, therefore, important to first understand the parameters of bullying.

Other than making unwanted sexual advances, AWARE defines the use of derogatory and belittling terms as well as career threats—the threat of termination or withholding of promotion—if an employee refuses to go on a date or acquiesce to sexual favours as sexual harassment. Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators”. Deliberate hindering or sabotaging work progress is also defined as a form of bullying.

Going by these definitions, two of the above-mentioned cases qualify as bullying, since a pattern of hostile behaviours was exhibited. In Palacio’s case, his coworkers had, in the months leading up to the prank, hidden his uniform and filled his work bag with trash. Palacio also believes that he was a target because of his Filipino descent.

The WBI also states that perpetrators are compelled by a need to control their targets. A colleague of the Singaporean intern recounted to Yahoo! several incidences where his boss repeatedly struck the latter. The reason for this abuse: the victim had an inferiority complex and the boss felt the need to “nurture him”.

4. Targets — Taking Action

Bullying engenders stress-related symptoms and emotional pain. The WBI found in a 2013 empirical research study titled “Offsetting the Pain from Workplace Bullying” that 32.3% of bullied targets engaged in self-destructive behaviours. Such behaviours included overeating, turning to alcohol, prescribed medications and recreational drugs as well as gambling. 33.4% of bullied targets withdrew social contact.

Onlookers may be baffled as to why victims would continue working in a toxic environment. Quitting may seem like the wisest choice, but the loss of income is a worrying factor. In fact, the WBI found in an instant poll involving 241 bullied individuals that 53% of them suffered economic setbacks after leaving their jobs. 26% of them never found a job replacement.

So what actions can you take, if you are a victim of bullying and you decide to stick it out at your workplace? What if the perpetuator is your direct supervisor or the boss of the company —what can you do?

5. Document the Bullying

In the Harvard Business Review article “Is Your Boss a Bully? Stop Being the Target” (19 November 2009), the authors advise that the victim should determine if there is a pattern of abuse. To do this, facts and specific behaviours should be documented. When did the incidents happen and what triggered the episodes? What were the words used? Documenting the incidents helps lend credence to your testimonies.

Another thing you should take note of is the witnesses who were present during the incident. Are they likely to corroborate your account or would they take the perpetuator’s side?

6. Set Boundaries

Many victims choose to suffer in silence – that is why bullies can freely take advantage. Forbes discusses the importance of setting limits in the article “How to Deal with a Bullying Boss” (20 September 2013). Learn to say “no” to a supervisor who throws his weight around and asks you to work unreasonable hours. This extends to coworkers as well – when a remark borders more on offensive than funny, sound off. State your reasons and get them to understand why it is not okay to make such comments.    

7. Talk to the Instigator Behind Closed Doors

Confronting a bully in the heat of the moment may prove ineffective. In The Straits Times article “Dealing with Workplace Bullying” (17 September 2012), Head of Southeast Asia Operations at Reed Specialist Recruitment Deepali Chaturvedi advises initiating a sit-down discussion with the bully. Talk about how the specific incidents made you feel threatened. If all else fails, consider taking the matter up with a senior HR representative.

8. The Last Resort

Unfortunately, grievances in the workplace are not always addressed. In the research study “Aftermath of Requesting Help from Human Resources” by WBI, 30.9% of the respondents said that their HR departments did nothing after the complaints were filed. The reluctance to punish could be due to the fact that the bullies are either key appointment holders or performers highly valued by the company.

If the bullying persists, you should consider submitting a complaint to the relevant government authorities. If the abuse turns physical or if you fear for your safety, make a police report. If you are fired after submitting a complaint against a higher-up, you can seek recourse by discussing your legal options with a lawyer.    

9. Companies — Respond Wisely

Workplace bullying will lead to a loss of productivity. If the resident bully is left to his own devices, eventually other employees will leave the company, resulting in a high turnover. The company will incur additional costs for recruitment and retraining. Abusive employers can also become embroiled in hefty lawsuits should dissatisfied employees decide to seek damages. Hence, any complaints about hostile behaviours should be taken seriously.

When coming to a resolution, HR personnel as well as management should avoid taking sides. Instead, rely on testimonies and facts to effectively resolve a conflict.


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Verztec is a leading ISO 9001:2008 Global Content Consulting Services Company. Verztec assists companies around the world to design, develop, localize and publish their global communication messages in over 60 languages across various channels. Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd

Verztec is a leading ISO 9001:2008 Global Content Consulting Services Company. Verztec assists companies around the world to design, develop, localize and publish their global communication messages in over 60 languages across various channels.