Back to top

Breaking Down Workplace Bullying

Crystal was looking for a full-time job but her then supervisor insisted that full-timers were hired only after a three-month internship. She was hired with a starting salary of $700 to provide marketing and writing services. However, her supervisor often took a long time to approve Crystal’s articles for publishing, and then blamed Crystal when they missed deadlines. She called Crystal incompetent and accused her of shoddy writing, and cut her pay by $200 as a result of the late submissions[1]

If the scenario seems familiar, you may have been a victim of, witness to, or even guilty of workplace bullying. Unfortunately, such events are commonplace. In a 2019 study conducted by Kantar, Singapore was identified as one of the countries with the highest level of workplace bullying, with almost a quarter of Singaporeans claiming to have been bullied in the workplace[2],[3].

Breaking Down Workplace Bullying

What exactly constitutes workplace bullying? According to Dr. Wang Jiunwen, Senior Lecturer, Human Resource Management Programme, SUSS, workplace bullying involves repeated negative actions and practices that are directed at one or more employees, causing them humiliation, offence and distress.

Delving deeper, Dr. Wang breaks down workplace bullying into 4 main types:

  • Personal derogation, which includes the use of humiliation, personal criticism, ridiculing or demeaning comments to undermine the standing or integrity of the target.

  • Intimidation, where threats of physical violence or psychological intimidation are utilised, or even through the abuse of power or position to make the victim feel helpless. 

  • Work-related bullying, which can come in the form of withholding of information, removal of responsibilities, work overload or by not crediting or acknowledging work undertaken by the victim. 

  • Social exclusion, which happens when the victim is isolated, scapegoated or sidelined by other employees.

Character and Circumstance

But why does workplace bullying occur in the first place? It may simply be down to individual character. The aggressor may have a Machiavellian complex or flawed personality, and be prone to acting out on their jealousy, narcissism, or insecurity.

Dr. Wang mentions that we have to consider circumstances as well, such as the situation that the workplace bully is in. They may be under immense pressure from their own boss or face problems outside of work, and act out on their staff or colleagues as a result of being unable to cope. This is something that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused mental, emotional and psychological stress on many people.

However, Dr. Wang points out that it is important to differentiate between the two underlying causes of workplace bullying, as circumstance is easier to mitigate and overcome. For instance, if work stress is behind a bully’s behaviour, stress and anger management training can reduce such negative behaviours. But should the behaviour be down to a character trait, the process is perhaps not as straightforward. While not impossible, changing one’s character requires tremendous self-awareness and work, and cannot be forced upon the individual if they are ultimately unwilling to do so.

An Issue of Culture

Culture, both societal and in the workplace, has a significant impact on workplace bullying too. Firstly, workplace bullying may be more prevalent in organisations that are hierarchical and have high power distance between leaders and their employees.

Secondly, as Asian cultures are more hierarchical in general, power distances are further tolerated, and people generally have an innate and natural tendency to defer to authority. Thus, targets of bullying may fear voicing out or reporting these incidents to Human Resource (HR), perpetuating workplace bullying behaviours in the process.

The Role of Human Resource

HR not only plays a key role in eradicating workplace bullying, it has an obligation and responsibility to. Eliminating such unprofessionalism makes the workplace safer and more enjoyable for employees, giving them the platform to be at their productive best. Stopping such behaviours prevents escalation into bigger problems as well. For example, should these issues end up requiring court settlement, it can cause significant damage both financially and reputation wise. But what exactly can HR do to eliminate workplace bullying? Dr. Wang shares some solutions.

First, organisations may lack the knowledge and skills to discern what constitutes workplace bullying, resulting in a lack of consequences for these negative behaviours. HR should provide a framework or policy on identifying behaviours that fall under workplace bullying. The policy or framework should emphasise zero tolerance towards all forms of harassment and bullying, and outline the conduct that organisations expect from all their employees. There should also be a clear outline of the process and procedures for preventing, reporting and dealing with workplace bullying.

Second, HR should establish anonymous feedback channels that enable employees to disclose what they are going through without any negative repercussions on whistleblowers. HR could also encourage third-party observers or witnesses of workplace bullying to report what they have observed. Any reports of bullying, regardless of how small the matter may seem, should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.

Third, HR must move to create a psychologically safe, open and transparent culture. Organisations tend to see the introduction of anti-bullying policies and procedures as a single event at which they provide training for managers and employees, and believe that their work is done once the training is complete. However, maintaining a positive and healthy culture is essential to preventing workplace bullying. If employees do not feel safe, they may find bullying a difficult subject to raise. Team members may also fail to recognise that bullying is taking place within their team or workplace. 

The damage as a result of workplace bullying can leave a lasting mark, and no one should have to put up with such hostile behaviours. HR plays a key role in stopping workplace bullying, but it ultimately cannot do so alone. Support and change must come from the top as well. The policies put across by HR require firm support and swift action by senior leaders in the organisation. These leaders must ultimately understand as well, that a workplace bullying situation says more about the organisation, than it does the individuals.

[1] Vulcan Post (APR 2018) 5 Singaporeans Share Their Workplace Bullying Experiences

[2] Kantar (SEP 2019) Most inclusive industries and countries identified in new Kantar Inclusion Index

[3] Business Times (SEP 2019) Singapore is second-worst globally for workplace diversity; 1 in 4 workers bullied: poll


Back to top