Thursday, November 19, 2009

Workplace Bullying

Research indicates that workplace bullying is widespread and that it is more prevalent that harassment.

A survey conducted in the UK reported that 38% of the employees of the National Health Services of the UK experienced bullying and another 42% witnessed the bullying of others.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik of the University of New Mexico, conducted an online survey in 2007 that included general workplace questions as well as those specific to bullying. During the survey, the 400 U.S. workers who participated, including 266 women and 134 men, ranked how often they had experienced a list of 22 negative acts in the past six months, on a scale ranging from never to daily. Lutgen-Sandvik and her colleagues found that nearly 30% of the participants met criteria for being “bullied.”

Sadly, there are no statistics for the incidence of workplace bullying in Malaysia, although I am very sure the issue is very much rife here.

What is workplace bullying? There is no clear definition under the laws of Malaysia, but The Law Society of New South Wales, Australia has offered the following definition of bullying: "Unreasonable and inappropriate workplace behavior includes bullying, which comprises behavior which intimidates, offends, degrades, insults or humiliates an employee possibly in front of co-workers, clients or customers and which includes physical or psychological behavior."

 The most common acts which constitute workplace bullying are:-
  1. Having information withheld that affected your performance
  2. Being exposed to an unmanageable workload
  3. Being ordered to do work below your level of competence
  4. Given tasks with unreasonable/impossible deadlines and targets
  5. Having your opinions and views ignored
  6. Spoken to in unacceptable language and rudeness
  7. Coercive behavior directed against your person or property
  8. Unreasonable teasing
  9. All forms of intimidating behavior including physical assault or threats
  10. Any form of demeaning behavior whether business or personal which serves to denigrate the individual being attacked
  11. Abuses of authority
Those who witnessed the bullying incidents taking place had higher stress levels and a greater dissatisfaction with their jobs compared with those who were not exposed to bullying.

Targets of extreme bullying can end up with permanent psychological damage, stress disorders, increased risk of heart disease and even thoughts of suicide. While certain personality types could be more prone to foster bullying behavior, the scientists say the structure of American workplaces could be partially to blame for breeding bullies.

Bullying should never be tolerated under any circumstances. Employers can develop clear workplace guidelines, practices and policies to safeguard everyone. Reducing the risk of exposure to workplace bullying would assist employers to satisfy their general duty of care to protect themselves and their employees.

In Malaysia, the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 Section 15(1) states that “It shall be the duty of every employer and every self-employed person to ensure, so far as is practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of all his employees.”

In Australia, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 contains statutory provisions for claiming damages as a result from being bullied in a New South Wales workplace. Among other things, an employer is responsible for "ensuring that systems of work and the working environment of the employees are safe and without risk to health".

The Australian case of Inspector Maddaford v Coleman, the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission [2004] confirmed an earlier decision that a timber joinery company had breached its duty under S.8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 by failing to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. In this case, a 16 year old factory worker was the subject of violent bullying - he was wrapped in plastic by his co-workers, rolled around on a trolley and covered in sawdust and glue. The director and factory foreman were found to be personally liable under s 26 of the Act (liability of managers and directors), even though they were not directly involved in the incident.

When the case was first heard, the company was fined AUD24,000 and the director and the factory foreman were personally fined AUD1000 each. But, in the second hearing, it was found that the penalties imposed were too low due to the seriousness of the matter and the need for deterrence. In other words, because bullying is often hidden or not talked about, the court felt that deterring bullying in the future was a significant factor in determining the penalty. Ultimately, the personal fines were bumped up to AUD9,000 for the director and AUD12,000 for the factory foreman, who was directly responsible for supervising employers.

In some cases, bullying in the workplace may become so unbearable that a person is forced to resign from their job. Although the Malaysian labour laws do not afford distinct protection against workplace bullying, victims of such acts of bullying may claim constructive dismissal where the circumstances surrounding the bullying tantamount to a material breach of the employment contract by the employer.

Bullying in the workplace may also create a claim for damages if it constitutes a form of discrimination. It is against the law to bully or harass someone on the basis of their race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, religious beliefs, sexuality or disability.

Many people, however, are very reluctant to admit that they are the targets of workplace bullying, mainly because they are too embarrassed at being seen to be “weak”. In actuality there is nothing to be ashamed of by admitting that you have been victimised. You can manage these bullies and create a better work environment for yourself and your co-workers. offers these tips:-

  1. Reject requests if you know that you have too much on your plate. Learning to say "no" is a form of strength in itself. More often than not, many of us find ourselves agreeing to too many requests and taking on too many responsibilities. One person can only handle that much. Most office bullies target those who could not bring themselves to say "no" to them. Be polite but firm, saying that you regret you are not able to help him/her out as you have your own deadlines to meet.
  2. Remain firm on your decision and do not waver in your decision to reject his/her request no matter what he/she might say to persuade you to "help out". If the situation turns ugly and the bully starts hurling verbal abuses at you, keep calm and politely tell him/her that you have to answer to your own superior and the tasks assigned to you are more urgent than the "favours" he/she is asking from you.
  3. When you signed the letter of appointment, you should be clear of whom you are reporting to at work and it should stay that way unless your employment contract is changed. You have a right to reject the requests from other people except for your superior as it would be wrong for you to "work" for someone other than the superiors you are answerable to.
  4. There is a thin line between what is right or wrong and what is acceptable or unacceptable at the workplace, especially in terms of interpersonal interaction. Be aware of the boundaries of what is acceptable or otherwise when dealing with the bully. If you feel that your "personal space" is intruded by the bully, know that it is wrong and do something about it. If the bully is persistent in getting too close for your comfort, it might be considered a form of sexual harassment, even without the physical contact or verbal harassment. Get help and ask for advice from someone trustworthy and reliable.
  5. In certain extreme cases when the situation gets out of control, such as when the office bully has gone to the extent of extorting money from you or threatening to harm you, get help. Learn some self-defense moves to ward off possible attacks when you are alone and might be "stalked" by the bully. If the situation turns from harmless to dangerous, talk to your superior or a trusted friend who could offer their opinion on how best to tackle the situation. In the worst case scenario, lodge a police report against the bully if the situation gets out of hand and the bullying case has turned into a criminal case, with your well-being at stake.
  6. A bully does what he/she does best - to make you feel bad. Do not fall into the trap by taking the guilt trip. You do not owe anything to the bully although he/she very much likes you to think that way.

Personally I would advise keeping a detailed, chronological note, or log, of the bullying incidents as and when they happen. You can use this to support you when you decide to highlight the issue to your superior or lodge a police report or a constructive dismissal claim if the need arises.