Workplace bullying: what HR needs to know

What HR needs to know about the costs and potential strategies to combat bullying behaviour in the workplace.
By: | August 28, 2018 • 6 min read

The following is an excerpt from Turning Gen Y On: What Every Leader Needs to Know about Recruiting and Retaining the Millennials by Marion Neubronner. 


Bullying is often imagined to be a scenario where a pack leader and his or her followers intimidates and attacks a weak and meek victim for no rhyme or reason. In such circumstances, most people will call this an act of bullying. Some may even stand up for the victim.

However, workplace bullying is not as easy to identify, as some of these acts have become part of our culture. Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviours (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference (sabotage) that prevents work from getting done


What to know about workplace bullying

The most important things to note about workplace bullying are that:

  • It is driven by the perpetrators’ need to control the targeted individual(s)
  • It is initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods
  • It requires consequences for the targeted individual
  • It often escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion
  • It undermines legitimate business interests when bullies’ personal agendas take precedence over the work itself
  • It is akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll

Most people would readily acknowledge that bullying is to be frowned upon and discouraged. Yet, what do the statistics say about workplace bullying in Singapore?

According to a survey conducted by JobsCentral Singapore, of 2,281 employees, 24% of the respondents indicated that they feel bullied at work. Also, 62% of these respondents identified their superiors to be the perpetrators.

In the same survey, the common bullying behaviours reported by the respondents included: unfair and biased allocation of workload, verbal abuses and personal attacks, ostracisation, wrongful accusation, abuse of seniority or power, gossip.


Reasons for workplace bullying

Here are a few reasons that employees, especially of the millennial set, are bullied:

1. Fear of being overtaken or overshadowed in the area of abilities

Anne [name changed], 25, recalls her experience: “My colleagues told me that my reporting manager would talk behind my back after I left work. She claimed that I refused to do the work she assigned to me, and caused her to stay overtime. Also, she would intentionally draw other colleagues’ attention to my absence whenever I took a toilet break.

“When another department required my assistance and I informed her accordingly, she intentionally called up the other department to ask for proof. While the senior management gave me an exceptional year-end appraisal and informed me of a promotion in another six months’ time, I left the job within the next four months because the bullying was disruptive to my productivity.

“It was also psychologically and emotionally draining. I just wanted to work. I don’t care for a promotion if it is at the expense of my psychological wellbeing.”

It was apparent to Anne’s colleagues that she was being bullied as she was told by colleagues and higher management to “hang in there”. Now it may be possible that your high-performing Gen Ys can indeed “hang in there”. However, how long can they do so before it breaks them? To what extent does the bullying have to go to before you decide it is enough? What does it show about your company when you tell a victim to “hang in there”?

Remember, the victim of workplace bullying is not always the weakest person. Gen Ys who are high performers are also susceptible to bullying.


2. Conflicting values and cliques

James [name changed], 27, shared that he always felt “naked” and “at the mercy” of the “aunties” (a colloquial term used for mature women) in the office.

These “aunties” would intentionally leave him out of celebrations and parties they organised. They also made sure the uninvited would know that they were not invited. It came across as being a “punishment”

for choosing not to be a part of their group. Also, when it came down to resource allocation at work, the “aunties” would intentionally withhold resources at hand so that James would run the risk of missing deadlines.

James never understood why he was a victim. He was friendly, hardworking, and was always ready to lend a hand to his fellow colleagues. When asked what was really different about him as compared to other colleagues, James shared that he was one of the top performers in the company, and the youngest one at that. His deputy CEO was aware of his excellent work ethic and made sure that he was promoted a year ago.

“It is so unfair. Am I supposed to take part in unhealthy gossip and become one of the bullies so that I do not get bullied myself? This is not right,” said James. He added he would keep doing what was right, although there was a tone of helplessness in his voice.

It is inevitable to have cliques in the workplace. Cliques can have a positive effect on new employees as they are introduced to the nontechnical aspects of the work and understand the informal practices in the workplace. However, it becomes counter-productive when these cliques aim to dictate a certain culture at the workplace. We can only expect power struggles, standoffs, and any other circumstances that will negatively impact the business.


3. Being disrespected and becoming an angry, stressed person’s punching bag

Belinda [name changed], 24, loves her job but is sick and tired of working at her organisation. Her reporting manager screams at her for no rhyme or reason and demands work that she is not aware of being assigned. Once, this reporting manager demanded for minutes to a meeting that took place more than a month ago. Not only was she not told to take minutes then, she was busy with other responsibilities during that meeting.

Another time, when on scheduled leave, she received a text from her reporting manager asking why she was not at work.

When we are rushed for time and stressed, we cannot manage our emotions well. In times of challenge, superiors have to maintain their calm. As a manager – do you? In your team, is there a member who is abusive when under stress? We understand human beings are emotional creatures and can turn a blind eye to some outbursts.

In the past, when staff were subjected to treatment akin to bullying, they accepted it as the hierarchy, based on each person’s experience and years in the organisation. So newbies waited until they became senior staff, and then meted out the same harsh treatment to their newer staff.

It was bullying then, as it is now. However, while workers in those days took it as the norm, especially since they may have needed the job, many Gen Y employees now want the respect they deserve.

They grew up in a flatter hierarchy at home and in school. They want a respect measured by their output, not age or position in the company. The phrase “Respect is earned, not demanded” is something that does not only apply to themselves, but also the world around them.


Hang tight for part two of this story, where Marion Neubronner talks about how organisations can protect their talent from workplace bullying.