Big, bad bullies

Workplace tyrants don’t just bring down the mood across an office. If left unchecked, they also threaten company productivity.

"My boss would berate me openly in the office in front of all my colleagues,” recalls a former employee of a large financial research firm with offices across Asia-Pacific.

“He would yell expletives at me and I dared not retaliate so as not to trigger him further. I almost cried at my desk once.”

This was only one month into the job, and the analyst says she felt powerless then because her superior was an industry veteran who she had depended on for contacts, considering she was still new to the finance sector.

He was also a company co-founder himself, and reports to HR proved futile. It was noted that the leader had 20 years’ management experience, and the newcomer was likely overreacting.

Her co-workers also did nothing to intervene. They were just as fearful of incurring this manager’s wrath.

The public lectures soon became a regular occurrence, and as months went by, she felt increasingly stifled by her fear of him.

“His nastiness influenced me to withhold a lot of feedback I’d otherwise have. I also didn’t dare to ask about my performance or how to improve because I didn’t know if he would laugh in my face,” she shares.

She finally decided to resign after close to a year, when things did not get better.

Culture of systematic bullying

This story is similar to many other junior employees in her position, where bosses who have too much authority start abusing their power and the people reporting to them.

Take the case of Australian broadcaster SBS. In July last year, several staff members told local media anonymously that the company had a rampant culture of “systematic bullying and belittling of staff”.

One whistleblower said young journalists in the newsroom, described as the “dark heart” of the station, were often bullied and felt paranoid they would lose their jobs.

Managers would spend more time criticising journalists on their “writing and appearance” than providing constructive training and improving team morale.

Another staffer said they were aware of harassment complaints being lodged to SBS’ HR department, but that no formal investigations ever took place. Things had gotten so bad that they said the workplace atmosphere had become “absurdist and dystopian”.

But a bad boss isn’t just someone who mistreats others. The classic office villain has been described as the two-faced Janus who steals credit for the work of others, and this type of cunning conduct is even harder to spot, and just as damaging.

In the 2011 US comedy film Horrible Bosses, one manager teases his staff with the possibility of promotion before giving it to themselves.  Another threatens to tell their employee’s fiancé they engaged in inappropriate acts together, while the third takes drugs at their desk and openly talks about firing people based on their appearance or disability.

Believe it or not, reality is sometimes even harsher.  And without the laughs and punchlines of satire. 

Two months ago, a photography studio in Sichuan, China, came under the spotlight when a video of three of its employees being forced to drink water out of a squat toilet went viral on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.

These workers were reportedly forced to perform the gross act because they had failed to meet targets set by a company trainer. The other ill-judged punishment included having to eat earthworms.

One victim told a local paper that the incident left her traumatised and caused her to lose her appetite for days. The company general manager said he had been unaware this was happening, but would look into the matter.

These examples are just among those that have been reported. There are other similar incidents out there that do not receive any media coverage. While many are not quite so extreme, such misconduct is unfortunately more common than it should be.

In all of these cases, there is no doubt, at least to the reader, that the fault lies with the managers.

HR hesitant to take action

But are those anecdotes as straightforward as they seem? If they are, why then did the HR and management in those companies not act more swiftly and decisively in holding bothersome leaders accountable. At the very least, they could have opened enquiries into the claims.

Judging by the first example, one reason could be that the offender was themselves part of the senior leadership team or a high performer, which can make any policing effort feel both highly awkward and superficial.

Other times, companies have clear policies on harassment and even communication channels for complainants, but that might only be because they are legally required to by the countries they operate in, says Gaurav Hirey, Group Director, HR and Talent Development, Teledirect.

In Hong Kong, for example, the “duty of reasonable care” clause states that if an employer has sufficient reason to believe there is a risk of misconduct to an employee which puts other workers at risk, then “the employer is under duty to take reasonable steps to avoid that risk materialising,” says Samantha Cornelius, Co-Head of Employment and Incentives, Linklaters Hong Kong.

This responsibility extends to harassment and abuse by co-workers, including managers.

Cornelius adds that “an employer has a statutory defence if it has taken the steps as were reasonably practicable” to prevent the inappropriate behaviour. Such steps include workplace behaviour policies and relevant staff training.

In the case of Ha Kwok Ming v Boxton Ltd, the employer  (Boxton) was found liable for an attack by one kitchen worker against another, because the court was satisfied that the employer was aware of the “widening rift” between the two particular employees (with a real risk of quarrels and fights developing), but did nothing to intervene.

Furthermore, Hirey says HR is sometimes hesitant to act due to the complainant’s lack of evidence. Most companies would take action if the bullying was proved, but if it could not be immediately verified, no action would commonly be taken.

“It is easy to claim to be a victim,  especially when the other party is a supervisor or a reporting boss. It puts a huge strain on the investigators to ascertain the truth, and many times the truth is something no one wants to believe,” he states.

“I have experienced several cases where allegations are made and not backed up with evidence or proof. In such cases, the organisation would normally place their trust with the supervisor.”

Issue more than empty threats

So while many companies have some sort of “code of conduct” around harassment, are these directions simply there as protection for the organisation?

Helena Santos, Head of HR, Asia-Pacific, International Baccalaureate, asserts that it is not in the organisation’s interest to sweep these issues under the carpet.

She says obnoxious bosses, or any tyrant in general, tend to target colleagues “who are the best and brightest because they want to drive out anyone they see as a threat to their own career advancement”.

These are the very high performers organisations desperately want to keep, and if they were to leave because of an unpleasant boss, then the adverse impact on the business could be significant.    

Whether it is through nasty words, bullying tactics, psychological abuse, sly moves, or even humiliating punishments  – no one action can be ranked as worse than the other. Over time, any form of awful behaviours managers display, small or big, can wear down the spirit, morale and emotional wellbeing of employees.

The result is usually high turnover in those departments, which HR needs to pay close attention to.

So although most organisations already have policies surrounding workplace persecution, more can be done in terms of management taking decisive actions and providing safe spaces for victims, says Santos.

“HR can put in place a whistle blower policy where employees can speak in total confidentiality,” she says. This way, those on the defence feel comfortable enough to step forward and tell their stories.

But even if employees don’t know how to talk about it, leaders and managers have the additional responsibility to act immediately on observations and allegations of harassment or discrimination.

“They should also be responsible for creating and maintaining a harassment and discrimination-free organisation, and should address potential problems before they become serious,” says Santos.

The key, she adds, is to impress on those behaving out-of-line that there will be consequences and that HR’s words are more than just empty threats.

“One way to deal with such managers is to set boundaries, be direct about what is not acceptable from their behaviours, and let them know that HR will report, escalate or take the necessary disciplinary measures.”

Checking the gatekeeper

Teledirect’s Hirey agrees that companies and HR alike have to be committed to building a “bully-free” organisation and unafraid to “check the gatekeeper”.

“There is nothing like a short-term or a long-term solution for bullying. The only solution is that it must be eradicated from the workplace at the cost of whatever it takes,” says Hirey. This can be done only if HR implements clear procedures for investigating and addressing bullying.

“Clear policies and open communication need to be a part of the company culture. The zero tolerance to bullying must be a part of that culture,” he explains, adding that leaders must lead by example and uphold this policy irrespective of hierarchy.

To show staff that it takes harassment seriously, it is of utmost importance that HR takes immediate action once complaints have been made.

It is highly critical in these early stages that HR speaks to the alleged wrongdoers immediately to assess the situation or complaint so that at least in the interim period, the victim feels like they have been heard and some action has been taken.

At International Baccalaureate, there have been cases of employees who have been harassed by their superiors, and HR did take immediate action, says Santos.

“Unfortunately, yes, we did all the above to address the problem, to create a space and workplace so employees will heal from feeling helpless, frustrated, devaluated and worried about the security of their jobs,” she reveals.

“We also acknowledged and communicated across the organisation that we say ‘no’ to workplace bullying.”

But she adds that the solutions were effective only because of the support shown by the company’s most senior person, who listened and took to the appropriate action.

At the same time, Hirey warns that HR’s role is not just limited to ensuring that these managers are immediately spoken to and that their inappropriate behaviours will not be tolerated.  HR also needs to identify what is instigating such patterns.

“One cannot ignore the fact that most of the times, the ‘bullies’ might be acting out or reacting, either out of pressure or personal insecurities,” he says. “HR needs to be aware that such behaviour may have deeper reasons and needs to probe for the real reasons behind their behaviour.”


See HRM Asia's unique look at the six types of horrible bosses here.

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