How To Handle Workplace Bullying

Sad man alone in the office

(Image: gillicious)

Last month, a 17-second video of an office bully went viral on the internet. In the video, a Singapore office supervisor could be seen repeatedly slapping an intern. (Update: The video has since been removed.)

While it is good that the issue has been brought to light and the police and ministry are now dealing with the case, one can’t help but ask, “Is this an isolated incident? Or are there more workplace bullying incidents which are simply unreported?”

I recall this General Manager at my previous workplace, a reputed American MNC. He had a reputation for his unmanageable temper, having committed workplace atrocities from scolding the f-word at team members, slamming a meeting room door to the point that the door handle broke, throwing a chair at an employee, and threatening physical abuse to agency people.

The behavior clearly crossed the line of what constitutes appropriate workplace conduct and civil behavior. As I had never worked with him directly, I never witnessed these displays of anger but only heard about them from co-workers. He also came across as polite in our interactions with each other both inside and outside of meeting rooms.

When I heard of his lash outs at others, I thought they were unacceptable. What is going on here? I thought, flabbergasted. How can this even be allowed?

I iterated my thoughts to my colleagues, who merely shrugged and wrote his behavior off as “this is the way it is” and “it is okay because he is the general manager in the company.” (General Manager in my ex-company is quite a senior position reserved only for employees who have been around for at least 12 years, coupled with exemplary performance.) Furthermore, this manager was delivering business results and technically living up to his role. His managers were probably thinking that as long as he delivered the business results, other things wouldn’t really matter.

I continued my career in the company with no run ins with that manager, but it took me a while for me to ease into the fact that someone could get away with being so abrasively rude and there was no one to do anything about it by virtue of his seniority.

How to Handle Workplace Bullying: 5 Tips

I suspect such workplace bullying behavior isn’t isolated—there are probably more of such workplace bullying taking place elsewhere.

The bullying may not always be physical, too—it can be in the form of emotional and verbal abuse. I hear of friends who—on a regular basis—face oppressive treatment from co-workers, are handed unreasonable and non-negotiable deadlines and workload by managers, are expected to drop social appointments and family commitments for work, and are berated by managers for not matching up to expectations (as opposed to receiving proper training and support to improve their performance gaps).

If you are a victim of workplace bullying, the last thing you should do is to let the behavior perpetuate because it only promotes the bullying. Here are 5 tips to handle such incidences.

1. Alert/Consult an authority figure

Workplace bullying is not acceptable on any grounds. If you see a manager or co-worker behaving out-of-line to you or a colleague, report it right away. Gather objective evidence of the offensive behavior, whether it’s chat logs, email records, and/or in-person witness accounts, and report this offence to an authority figure.

There was once when a male colleague behaved out-of-line in his interactions with me. His behavior bordered a little on harassment and made me feel highly uncomfortable.

After a few irksome encounters, I reported the situation to my manager, showing her snippets of chat logs and giving detailed recounts of incidents where I felt offended so she knew what was going on. I was planning to resolve the issue on my own but still told my manager anyway as I wanted her to be in the loop of what was going on. In the event where I could not resolve the issue myself, she could then intervene to help.

I eventually resolved the issue myself by speaking to my colleague about my grievances with his behavior, after which he apologized and backed off. While there was never a need for my manager to be involved, I did get emotional relief from looping her into the ordeal. It was also good to know that she was on board and ready to help me in any case I needed her to do so.

Your manager is the go-to person to alert/consult. In cases where the bully is your manager, report the offence directly to your HR department. The police and the Manpower of Ministry should be notified in more severe cases, such as when the bullying involves physical force/abuse.

2. Know your rights

Just like your company has expectations of you as an employee, you have employee rights too.

The Ministry of Manpower has a set of employment practices which govern employer-employee relations in Singapore; those of you not in Singapore can check with the labor union institution in your country. Every HR department should have employment guidelines governing appropriate conduct in the company, both of the company and of the employee. Last but not least, you should have signed  an employment contract when you joined your company, detailing the terms of your employment, expectations of your role, who you should report to, and expectations of you as an employee.

Study these practices and guidelines carefully and familiarize yourself with them. Know your rights so that you can recognize situations where boundaries are being crossed and can push back and/or report offensive behaviors accordingly.

3. Learn to assert yourself

As you know your rights, learn to assert yourself. You don’t have to say “yes” just because it’s your manager making the request. Sometimes managers can make unreasonable requests (such as giving you last minute assignments, expecting you to work overtime and deliver them within the day itself, being disrespectful of your personal time outside of work, etc.) and you have grounds to push back if the requests are out of line.

Remember, you have a voice as an employee too.

Furthermore, sometimes managers are not aware that they are being unreasonable because their subordinates keep saying yes; they take their subordinates’ “yes”es as an indicator that everything is okay and they can continue their current behavior. It’s not that they are being difficult; it’s just that they are not aware how ridiculous their requests are. I know that I never know the constraints that my staff (my outsourced contractors) face until they provide feedback, after which I then modify my requests factoring in the challenges they are facing.

Contrary to popular belief, asserting yourself doesn’t have to involve abrasiveness. Objectify the situation, identify the offending factors (such as manager crossing the line in terms of employment expectation, or being uncivil in his/her behavior to you), and iterate them to him/her without attacking. Focus on facts; stay away from making sweeping statements. “I” statements rather than “You” statements will be helpful, such as “I have three projects on my plate now and do not have the capacity to work on this fourth project” vs. “You are giving too much work and I can’t handle it.”

Related pieces on asserting yourself:

A useful piece on giving feedback: How to Give Constructive Criticism in 6 Steps

4. Develop a strong social network at work

No man is an island. As humans, we are stronger as a group. This is the same in the workplace.

Workplace bullying is a highly unpleasant experience and you should not have to go through this alone. Having a strong social network will help you to deal better. Firstly, your colleagues can provide emotional support. Secondly, colleagues who have faced similar situations and/or have worked with said bullies before can provide advice on how to deal with them, since they would have relevant insights.

5. Get a mentor

I once had a very bad experience with an autocratic manager. Highly unhappy working under her, I once contemplated leaving the job. Luckily, I had a mentor in the company who got wind of my situation and quickly intervened to pull me out of the predicament. He set in motion a series of events which eventually got me transferred to a different department under a different manager.

Having a mentor is helpful in workplace bullying situations because (a) your mentor can provide advice given he/she has more experience in life/in the company and (b) if your mentor is working in the same company, he/she can directly intervene to help you if needed. Beyond workplace bullying, having a mentor will be highly beneficial in your career development and personal development.

Look for one to two seniors in your company whom you would like to have as your mentor. Ideally, (a) he/she should be in the same function as you or work in an overseeing function such that he/she can provide relevant career insights, and (b) you should have a good camaraderie with him/her. Invite him/her to lunch and ask him/her to be your mentor. Let him/her know that the mentor-mentee relationship not meant to be high commitment and you are happy to learn from him/her in a capacity he/she is comfortable with.

Once the mentor-mentee relationship is established, set up a monthly one-to-one lunch session with him/her, which will serve as a platform to update on your ins-and-outs in the company, seek career advice, and get feedback. Your mentor will serve as a guide in your time in the company; many times mentor-mentee relationships continue even after one party leaves the company because both parties gain from the exchanges.

To You

Are you facing any workplace bullying situations? How can you apply the five tips to your situation?

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