Bullying in the workplace

The ambiguity between professional and malicious conduct is weighing down a lot of employees not only psychologically but also financially. However, ultimately, what matters most is performance. Nobody can bully you if you do a good job.

ANDREW LO

ANDREW LO

IN the school ground, being intimidated and singled out by somebody ‘bigger’ than you is called bullying.

You run to your parents, who, in turn, run to the teacher or to the bully’s parents. The odds of the bully backing off is about 50:50 — he might come back and hit you even harder.

In the workplace, being intimidated and singled out by somebody who has a ‘bigger’ title than yours is called ‘workplace politics’.

Your parents will call it part and parcel of being an adult and your employers might choose to ignore it. Their answer: Deal with it.

As petty as it may sound, the financial cost incurred by workplace bullying is very real. Institutes and  anti-bullying hotlines have been set up to combat this growing issue that’s costing companies in first world countries like the United Kingdom and the United States a fortune in productivity, healthcare and litigation costs.

Last year, UK PLCs received up to 189,000 applications in     complaints, which cancost over £20,000 per hearing.

In the US, workplace bullying has lost companies as much as $180 million in decreased productivity and efficiency over a two-year period.

But the term ‘workplace bullying’ only seems to be officially recognised in western countries. Is it specifically a western problem?

According to Malaysian Trade Union Congress secretary, Andrew Lo, bullying is a universal problem.

In western countries, there is a community system that supports action against workplace bullying. In the absence of such a system here, coupled with the Asian respect for work hierarchies, the impression is that workplace bullying is okay. So the problem doesn’t get brought up because it’s not considered a problem — just a cultural difference.

Malaysian Employers’ Federation Associate Consultant in Industrial Relations, George Young Jr, observes “westerners can recognise the symptoms more. For us here, it’s still a very taboo kind of topic and a human rights issue.”

A proverbial can of worms, subtler issues that can result from bullying such as creating a climate of fear, tension and loss of motivation are hard to pin on the bully unless there are witnesses to corroborate or the effects are very obvious.

Not sure of rights

Many employees, however, are not sure of their rights — how to voice their views in a way that they can still get to keep their jobs, especially if the bullies are superiors or employers themselves.

“Employees such as young school-leavers or those working under a sole proprietorship, just tend to leave. In a big organisation, however, you can run to Human Resources,” Young notes.

But even then, the guidelines for proper conduct at work are defined by the employers.

“While there’s a guideline against sexual harassment, there’s no law per se against bullying. There’s a guideline for the employers that restricts them from humiliating employees in front of others. If the behaviour persists then you can resign,” he adds.

So far, the Human Resources Ministry has defined anti-sexual harassment policies but not those for anti-bullying.

According to Lo, it’s good to promote this kind of policies but they will only be as effective as their implementation. Once there are such policies in place, employees will have the confidence to report such matters.

The more provable example of being bullied at the workplace hinges on the core of the contracts and whether the work given complies with the employee’s job descriptions.

“Whenever employees feel their salaries have been arbitrarily cut or they are being given a demotion without proper explanation, then the employee can claim constructive dismissal,” he explains.

Other claims for constructive dismissal include:

*   Being transferred to a different location even though the employees’ skills are not specifically needed in that area;

*    The withdrawal of contractual benefits — car, housing, substantial changes in the job function, behavior by the employer intended to humiliate the employee, acts of victimisation (setting unattainable deadlines, constant fault-finding and harassment);

*    Threatened with dismissal if the employee does not resign from the job.

The odds that mistreated employees will report their cases, however, are still slim.

According to Lo, the need for the job outweighs the working conditions and employees rights.

“If you leave the job and file a report for constructive dismissal, your report will not be solved for another five years. On top of that, the amendments to the Industrial Relations Act limits the amount of compensation.”

Walking fine line

There’s another fine line for an employee to walk.

Young cautions: “Employees must be very careful if they stay longer under this kind of conditions. Then it can be argued they’re condoning the employer’s actions.”

Consequently, bullying can be more difficult to define than sexual harassment.

Young also questions the limits to which ‘bullying’ can be defined. Does it include the act of asking your secretary to make you coffee, pick up your children from school or the dry-cleaning?

While peer to peer bullying is usually sexual in nature, what constitutes as bullying between same-sex peers might be part of the learning curve for new employees.

For Lo, however, bullying as part of an initiation or learning curve doesn’t fly.

“If it’s about learning curves, then training would have to be in a structured sense and bullying is a no-no,” he says, referring to a time when the army and police force used to induct cadets through a process called ‘ragging’.

“But this practice has since died out. I think it undermines the learning curve and perpetuates a bullying culture for the next generation of recruits and I’m strongly against it. It’s not the right way,” he stresses.

While Lo states there’s very little official data to support the fact that bullying does go on in the workplace, from his experience, workplace bullying is very prevalent in a company where there are no formal structures.

“Family-owned companies tend to favour those who are personally linked to them,” he notes.

According to him, bullying at the workplace comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the industry.

“Financial bullying, for example, takes place more often in the construction sector in terms of unpaid salaries and certain claims.”

He says once aware their employees are looking for a different place of employment, employers have been known to deliberately delay payment until a few weeks after the following month even though they know it’s illegal.

“They’ll keep delaying the payment so that the employees won’t walk out. Workers, in turn, will keep working — even as long as two extra weeks — until they get the payment. By then, they will have already worked half a month without pay.

“While cases of actual physical bullying are rare, we have handled cases of managers throwing books or banging the table and these are mostly from the banking sector. Not because they happen more often in the banking sector but because trade unions in this sector are the most effective in bringing up such cases,” he adds.

Shy of unions

But companies, in general, are not keen on unions.

“It’s not a company’s policy to have a trade unions but in a company where there are lots of branches, the head branch will not know what’s going on in these branches. Trade unions will be effective watchdogs for the head company,” Lo says.

In terms of peer to peer bullying, he suggests it can be solved through improving one’s self-esteem.

“There are local NGOs — join clubs and churches, and once you earn your self-respect, it doesn’t matter what happens around you, the answer still boils down to yourself.”

He argues Asians traditionally have timid low self-esteem, and advocates training leaders and teachers to develop students’ self-esteem straight from school, saying they should prepare students and graduates for employment.

But how does a superior get work done without a little bit of authority and intimidation?

For Hashim Nizam, general manager of a local food producer, there’s a fine line between bullying and wielding authority.

According to him, bullying outright would involve transferring the staff outside their capabilities without giving them support, overloading employees with an unreasonable amount of work and setting unreasonable deadlines.

“Certainly, when you assign the staff, you need to set deadlines but if the deadline does not take the amount of work into consideration, then that is unreasonable.”

But what can an employer do if a subordinate is incompetent or not performing?

“For us, we try to counsel the subordinate and ask him or her what’s the problem — if they’re not willing to adapt, then we try to find something that’s best for them. But the important thing is employees have to be able to adapt.”

In cases where employees are insubordinate, neglectful or making the company lose money, Hashim explains there are proper conventions for employers to follow.

“The memos don’t come in thick and fast but after being counselled and issued verbal warnings and after a third written memo, the company has the right to terminate employment.”

But even then, he notes some companies will ask for the staff to resign.

“When the targets of that company cannot be met or the employee is problematic, the employer usually doesn’t want to terminate the employee because you wouldn’t want to make it look bad for employee when he or she finds another job elsewhere.”

As a general manager himself, Hashim asks employees to be more understanding when it comes to workplace policy.

“Management cannot be seen to flip-flop. Some of the staff don’t understand — they try to break the policy and find ways around it but the policy is there so that nobody is unfairly discriminated against. As far as employers are concerned, we try to be fair by listening to their grievances and trying to work with whatever resources we have.”

Although bullying in the school ground is clean-cut and the solution even simpler, it’s less easy to define in the workplace but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Professionals from all walks of life — from the healthcare system to the industrial sector — are being affected psychologically and financially by the blurring between professional and malicious conduct.

And as Lo points out: “Bullying can be as pervasive as sexual harassment. You feel you have to put up with it to enhance your career but ultimately, your performance is what counts. Nobody can bully you if you do a good job.”


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