Facing up to bullies at the workplace

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 24, 2014

THE office is a second home, or so it is said. However, when people work in close 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 per cent of Singaporean employees said they were victims of workplace bullying.

What constitutes bullying? Last May, a 17-second video of a Singaporean intern being slapped repeatedly by his boss surfaced on the Internet. It was later revealed that the abuse ran deeper: The 29-year-old intern had been working at the software company since he had been an undergraduate. Not only did he work many late nights, but he was also not given a work contract or any benefits.

Where physical or verbal abuse has occurred, the bullying becomes clear-cut. But other forms of bullying may be more subtle.

Take sexual harassment, for example. In a public opinion survey by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), over 50 per cent of Singaporean employees - out of 500 men and women - said they had experienced sexual harassment at some point. Thirty per cent 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 be just a playful gesture, but to others, it could amount to molestation.

Men are not always the perpetrators of sexual harassment debacles. In 2009, a female graduate trainee at accountancy firm Deloitte sent an e-mail to her female colleagues asking them 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 fun; the votes would be gathered for an awards ceremony to be held during the office's Christmas party. Her male colleagues even nominated themselves.

However, the e-mail went viral, and her managers got wind of this matter. The employee resigned the next day. In an official statement, a Deloitte spokesman expressed disappointment at her behaviour and advised all to exercise discretion when sending e-mail.

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.

The 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 of work progress is also defined as a form of bullying.

Bullying engenders stress-related symptoms and emotional pain. The WBI found in an empirical research study last year that 32.3 per cent of bullied targets engaged in self-destructive behaviour, such as overeating and turning to alcohol, prescribed medication and recreational drugs, as well as gambling. A third 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 a poll involving 241 bullied individuals that 53 per cent of them suffered economic setbacks after leaving their jobs, and 26 per cent of them never found a job replacement.

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

In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, "Is your boss a bully? Stop being the target", the authors say the victim should determine if there is a pattern of abuse.

To do this, facts and specific behaviour 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 testimony.

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?

In addition, many victims choose to suffer in silence - which is why bullies can freely take advantage. Learn to say "no" to a supervisor who throws his weight around and asks you to work unreasonable hours.

This extends to co-workers 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.

Confronting a bully in the heat of the moment may prove ineffective. Some experts advise 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.

Unfortunately, grievances in the workplace are not always addressed.

In a research study by WBI, 30.9 per cent of the respondents said 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.

Workplace bullying can 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 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 behaviour should be taken seriously.

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

The writer is chief executive of Verztec Consulting.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 24, 2014

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