Bullying: The hidden problem in the workplace

Vivien Shiao Shufen 01 Oct 2013

Earlier this year, Singapore was rocked by a scandal that got everyone talking. The boss of a local IT firm was filmed hitting a younger employee repeatedly on the head while also verbally abusing him.

The whistleblower who filmed the video was an intern, who noticed that the supervisor was constantly bullying his co-worker. According to Chinese daily LianHe Wanbao, the victim joined the firm three years ago as an intern and was paid $500 a month, with no benefits or leave days. After graduation, he continued working at the firm under the same terms. His family reported that he often returned home late and turned up at work even when he was ill for fear of offending the supervisor.

Since the public outcry, a few former employees of the firm have also stepped up to report the same office bully for his abusive behaviour towards them.

While it is easy to write this incident off as a rarity, bullying in the workplace is more common than many think. A 2012 online survey by JobsCentral showed that 24% of workers in Singapore believed they had been victims of it.

With such a large proportion of the workforce touched by this scourge, it’s time for HR to get actively involved and take ownership of the problem.


What constitutes bullying

There is no specific legislation to combat workplace bullying in Singapore, says Jaya Prakash, author of Inciting Injury: An Exposé of Workplace Bullying in Singapore. “That has left many in a bind to define workplace bullying,” he explains. “Though the Ministry of Manpower has something called ‘victimisation’, it is limited in scope, reach and in enforcement powers to effectively combat the social menace of workplace bullying.”

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) also notes that there is no fixed definition of workplace bullying in Singapore. “We can generally say that bullying is any repeated and persistent behaviour targeted at either an individual or a group of individuals,” says Patrick Tay, NTUC Director for Legal Services and the Professionals, Managers and Executives unit. “Bullying need not be physical, active and direct. It can be psychological, passive and indirect as well.”

Sometimes, bullying can be so subtle that HR barely notices, such as ‘forgetting’ to invite someone to a social event, or taking away key responsibilities from a person without valid cause. While these actions may be difficult to identify and qualify, they can still be felt within the office and create a toxic environment.

It is easy to identify physical abuse, but HR professionals may find it tough to differentiate the line between friendly teasing and hurtful and malicious verbal quips.

Prakash says that all too often, workplace bullying starts with seemingly innocent teasing. “Teasing can slip into inveighing against a person’s accent, culture, race, religion, sexual orientation and so on,” he says. “Therefore, it is a blurred line because bullies will begin with teasing to then ‘graduate’ into bullying.”

For Gaurav Hirey, Regional HR Director – Asia Pacific, GroupM, any behaviour that is repeated, deliberate, and disrespectful with the intention of hurt constitutes ‘bullying’.


Why it matters

Aside from being ethical, there is a strong business case for HR to manage workplace bullying. Its impact can be felt on many levels, and it is not just the victim who suffers.

For the victims of bullying, it is likely that that their emotional health and work productivity will be affected, says Deepak Bharara, Director – Corporate HR, Lanco Infratech. This could lead to a loss of a perfectly good employee, increasing turnover and creating extra work for the HR department.

If bullying is ignored, there will be severe consequences for the organisation in the long run. Bharara warns that bullying will become the culture of the firm and paints a dire scenario of the situation. “Employees will form groups and infighting will be prevalent leading to reduced level engagement and erosion of bottom line of the organisation,” he predicts.

Deepak adds that other staff who may not be part of the bullying may follow suit, sometimes unknowingly. On one end of the spectrum, they may start to indulge in bullying to be part of the power play. On the other end, they may feel insecure and worry that they could be at the receiving end of bullying the future. Such a tense and toxic work environment will inevitably lead to high turnover and poorer performance.

The way HR responds to workplace bullying matters more than the act itself. “A company’s response to bullying is a sign of its culture and how much they really do value their employees,” says Brent Tignor, Regional HR Manager – Asia Pacific, Stepan. “Who wants to stay with a company that allows bullying to continue?”


What HR should do

Most experts recommend that a proper Grievance Procedure be put in place to handle any accusations of bullying. Tay from NTUC says that such a channel should be progressive, meaning that the matter should be dealt with and resolved at the lowest levels, and progressively escalate to the next level of management should the problem remain unresolved within a specified period of time. Throughout each step, it is ideal for HR to be present as a neutral third-party.

A spokesperson from the Manpower Ministry says that having open lines of communication and a proper grievance handling procedure are key steps to overcoming workplace bullying. “This includes informing all employees of the channels and procedures available in approaching the company’s top management if they wish to lodge a complaint against the behaviour of particular supervisors,” the spokesperson said.

Bharara adds that HR should take steps to develop a workplace bullying policy and code of conduct for employees. This establishes expectations of appropriate behaviour and the consequences for failing to comply with them. “HR should create a buzz in the organisation through information and awareness on workplace bullying for all employees,” he says.

Gaurav from GroupM says that once HR gets wind of bullying, it should address it immediately by having a confidential conversation with the perceived victim to confirm their understanding of the situation. “If there is indeed bullying, a detailed confidential enquiry needs to be conducted to verify the facts of the case and a report should be filed either to the top management or a committee formed to handle such complaints,” he explains.

After the enquiry is completed, the “bully” should be confronted and the facts of the case communicated clearly to the person involved, giving them a chance to clarify the situation. “If the explanation is not found satisfactory, then straight actions needs to be initiated,” he says.


Prevention better than cure

Handling workplace bullying is often a messy and difficult affair. It may be in HR’s best interests to ensure that such practices do not even start.

For Tignor, this should start right from the recruitment process. “It’s important to incorporate into the interviewing process the type of person that companies want to bring into their organisation from the very beginning,” he says. “Evaluating their level of competency in areas such as interpersonal relationships, integrity and so on, matters. Behavioural-based interviewing techniques can dive into specific examples of situations they may face with co-workers and the skill with which they could handle those scenarios.”

While this may not be a foolproof “silver bullet” solution, it can go a long way in providing insight into the type of person the organization is about to invest in, he says.

Bharara says that it is often an organisation’s culture that breeds bullying behaviour. As such, it is imperative that HR encourages staff to act towards each other in a respectful and professional manner, building a more positive work culture. He also emphasised that supervisors and managers should be trained on how to deal with such a situation before it even happens.

When HR has an effective strategy in tackling workplace bullying, everyone benefits.

“Tackling workplace bullying can boost employees’ morale as they will feel assured that the company is concerned about their well-being and safety,” says Tay of NTUC. “This will lead to higher productivity, good performance, lesser turnover and goodwill towards the management. This will also improve the company’s public image.”


How bullies operate

A study has found that many workplace bullies receive positive evaluations from their managers and achieve high levels of career success, despite organisational efforts to stop bullying.

The team of researchers of the University at Buffalo School of Management sought to study the relationship between workplace bullying and job performance.

They collected behavioural and job-performance data from 54 employees of a US health-care firm, and found a strong correlation between bullying, positive job evaluations, and social and political skill in the workplace.

The researchers found that many bullies thrived by charming their managers and manipulating others to help them get ahead, even while they abused their co-workers. Because many bullies can “possess high levels of social ability,” they are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor,” the authors found.

“If people are politically skilled, they can do bad things really well,” study leader Darren Treadway added.

The researchers suggest that firms assess civility and camaraderie as part of performance and help staff develop skills to manage bullies.

The study was published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology.


Everyone suffers from bullying

It’s not just the person being bullied that suffers. A new study from the University of British Columbia has found that other employees are just as hurt by the inappropriate behaviour.

“Just working in that toxic environment can [have a negative effect],” says Sandra Robinson, a professor at University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and a co-author of the study.

The study, based on a survey of 357 nurses at 41 units of a Canadian hospital system, found that employees had similarly high “turnover intentions” or thoughts about calling it quits, whether they were the direct target of bullying or just worked in departments where bullying was common.

In fact, those who weren’t directly bullied could be even more inclined to leave, their more positive treatment creating “a sense of moral uneasiness,” the researchers noted.

Though the study – published in last month’s issue of Human Relations – only measured the nurses’ intentions to leave and not whether they followed through by quitting. Robinson says having employees plotting their exits for prolonged periods can be even more detrimental than just having them leave.


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