For most part of our adult life, we spend most of our time at work; 8 - 9 hours for normal people, 12 - infinity hours for crazy workaholics. So sometimes, people say our workplace is like a "second home", or at least we try to make it like a second home to us.

Therefore, if we are going to spend most of our time and life at the workplace, we need it to be a safe and pleasant environment (among many other factors) in order to keep our sanity. Need is a key word here. Factors like, safety, security, camaraderie/friendship(s), etc. are our basic needs. So apart from money (salary) and benefits/entitlements, employers must also ensure the environment is safe and friendly for everyone to work in.

The safety we are talking about here is not entirely in the physical sense, but also in the emotional/psychological sense.

You can pass all sorts of tests to prove that your office meets all requirements for safety rules and regulations (i.e. no fire hazards, no blocked doors, etc). But there is no test to know if your office is safe from verbal and emotional abuses. Sure, the Human Resource department can conduct confidential annual quizzes, but how many honest feedback would they get? And how many abused victims would approach them for help?

This is an area that has been long-neglected, because "bullying" and "verbal/emotional abuse" at a workplace can be so subjective. It's a grey area nobody wants to go into... for fear of opening up the closets that are full of skeletons (or opening up a can full of worms). 

What constitutes "bullying" at a workplace?

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There is a fine line between a "strong management" and a "bully" at work.

Perhaps, most of the time, the perpetrators of workplace abuse never ever thought they were bullying. Perhaps, to them they are just being "bosses". And being bosses, they are entitled to reprimand if need be, scold/shout or show their anger at incompetence, and make their subordinates do everything to their bidding because that's their rights and they earned it.

Perhaps, to them, it's just how things have always been and should be.

But of course, there are also those who clearly know and understand what they are doing (e.g. those who are trying to bully someone into quitting their job). Those who have no conscience.

So how do we know if it has crossed the line, and is no longer what you would consider as "strong management" or just a "management style" anymore?

Once they (or you, an upper management reading this) repeatedly do any of the following examples to their (your) subordinates, then I think it's safe to say that they (YOU) are bullying:

  • Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo that is not true. 
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially. Intimidating a person. 
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work. 
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse. 
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause. 
  • Constantly changing work guidelines. 
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail. 
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information. 
  • Making jokes that are 'obviously offensive' by spoken word or e-mail. 
  • Intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying or stalking. 
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure). 
  • Underwork - creating a feeling of uselessness. 
  • Yelling or using profanity. 
  • Criticising a person persistently or constantly. 
  • Belittling a person's opinions. 
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment. 
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion. 
  • Tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment.
(Examples are quoted from: Bullying in the Workplace, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)
Note: I am talking a lot more about bosses being the bullies because I think it's more common and more destructive than if the bully is a colleague.

Effects of bullying: On the victims and on the organisation(s)

The psychological consequences for the victims may include, "anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." The victims may even suffer from physical ailments resulting from the psychological stress... such as "hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, neurological disorders, immunological impairment, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and diabetes."

"Relationships with family, friends, and workplace colleagues often suffer as well, creating a greater sense of alienation and hopelessness in bullying victims." (Workplace Bullies, Corporate Psychopaths by Rebecca Popham)

For the organisation, high turnover (additional costs in recruiting and retraining new staff), absenteeism, lower productivity, and maybe even lawsuits, are just some examples of the costs they may have to bear due to workplace bullying.

What can you do?


If leaving is not a choice, due to reasons such as a potential loss of income, then what can you do to help yourself before you lose it?

1. Talk to the bully privately, and firmly ask him/her to stop. Explain things from your perspective and seek his/her understanding. This might work if it's more of an "accidental bullying", when the bully didn't mean to hurt you, but truly thought his/her management style (if the bully is your boss) is the way to get things done or to make the subordinates learn. Or if the bully is your colleague, he/she may fail to realise the destructive nature of his/her actions and just lack consideration to the feelings of other people (or in short, lack EQ). You know, there are people like that everywhere.

This may seem really daunting since it's not what we would usually do in our Asian culture. We don't really do those confronting sort of business.

However, I think if you can muster up your courage and say something to the bully, it may actually shock that person and he/she may recognise the problem and stop. And I guess sometimes we get bullied because those bullies think we are weak and won't fight back. Once you do (not really fight back, but make a stand), they may stop as it's not worth the effort since you're not the weakling they thought you are.

If the bully is not accidentally bullying you, but purposefully making life difficult for you in order to make you go... perhaps he/she just doesn't like you for whatever reason, maybe you can try the following phrases, taken from Workplace Bullying: The Mental, Physical and Economic Costs by Melany Gallant, during occasions when the bully is acting out.

“This behavior is unprofessional. When you are ready to deal with me in a positive, constructive way, I’ll be happy to speak with you.”
"STOP. You are harassing/bullying me, I do not like the nature of your tone and request you stop speaking in this manner immediately."

Imagine how empowering and shiok it would be if you can say that to your bully right in his/her face?

2. If talking to the bully did not help or making a stand made things worse, document all interactions and incidents with your bully so that you can substantiate your claims or refute his/hers when you approach the HR department or your boss' boss (if your boss is the bully) for help. Explain to them your situation and request for their help to mediate/resolve the issue.

3. If that fails to resolve anything, your boss does not give two hoots about how you feel or what you think, the HR department's hands are tied because your bully is a top management or is a far more important "asset" to the organisation than you, or the bully has certain "connections" and your boss' boss does not care too... Seek help from the authorities (Ministry of Manpower).

Your health and well-being are of utmost importance. If you let things go on, and let your mental health suffer over time, it will not help you in the long-run. Yes, income is important. However, deteriorating mental health is something that may cause you your job eventually (it may give them the reason to ask you to leave, especially if your work is affected by your state of mind). And there goes any other future job opportunities as well.

Stop when it's still at a fixable stage. Seek help from the Ministry and get the protection you need.

Do not suffer in silence.

Life is short. Too short to be unkind to ourselves.


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If you are in a position to help, but stands by and does nothing, you are tacitly "agreeing" to the abuse you are witnessing.

If you are a colleague of the bully, who is in a position to advise him/her to stop his/her actions, do something about it.

If you are the boss of the bully, who knows what is happening... even if the bully is a good worker... do something about it. Don't condone his/her bad behaviour just because you need him/her.

As much as the bully may be a "good worker", his/her behaviour is potentially causing additional and unnecessary costs to the organisation. It may also lead to bad reputation (when the victims share his/her bad experiences with family/friends, and it spreads by word of mouth) or legal issues. Would it be worth it at the end of the day?


Stop. Before it's too late.

There is always a limit to someone's tolerance.

A person can be healthy for most of his/her life till he/she met you. That does not mean your constant bullying would not break him/her.

Just like driving, if you keep speeding recklessly on a regular basis, there's bound to be a day when you will get into an accident and kill someone or yourself. You may think your management style is just the way it is, and if someone cannot take it he/she is free to leave.

1) Not everyone can afford to leave without a new job and not everyone can find a new job easily

2) If most people cannot adapt to your style, perhaps the problem lies with you and not them?

If you're just someone who bullies someone just because you dislike him/her and you want that person to leave "voluntarily", then I have something to say to you:

"You are a terrible, terrible person." 

Try and grow some conscience and morals, please.


If you keep doing horrible/bad things, you will get your retribution in due time/eventually.

Don't push people to the edge, with no caution or consideration to their feelings. If you ever push someone over the edge, you will not be able to bear with the consequences.

Human Resource Department:

Listen, and do your job regardless of who that bully might be.

If there are evidences to support the victim's claims, then do the right thing.

If not, if things were to blow up eventually, then you will be at risk of getting into trouble also. Whether with the top management or the MOM.

Top Management:

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Set clear policies against bullying and abuse.

The policies must and should apply to everyone in the organisation, regardless of their position or connection.

Have a anonymous whistle-blowing system and ensure the HR department has the power to do their job in investigating all claims.

Audit how the investigations are being carried out.

Prevent and stop it from being a prevalent issue in your organisation.

You are so untouchable when you're at the top, you usually don't understand how terrible things are at the bottom.

My thoughts

Bullying at the workplace is much more prevalent than we think. It's been a growing issue for years. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed or hidden because jobs are at stake. People don't want trouble, and don't want to appear like they are some whiners who cannot take stress.

But the thing is, if we don't condone bullying in school, and we don't tolerate physical or verbal abuse happening at home or in school as well, then why do we allow it at workplaces?

Is it suppose to be a norm?

I have had a few bad experiences in certain past jobs. A boss who would constantly lament about how "brainless" my colleague can be in front of us and belittle/humiliate her in front of us on a daily basis; a boss who would smoke in his office while in a discussion with us and would use vulgarities on us; a boss who would lie about anything and try to create rifts between his workers so that they are not strong as a group... and I left those jobs when I realised how toxic those environments were.

Was it an easy decision to leave? Not at all. I have responsibilities to think of. I did not always manage to get a new job before I leave. There was once I spent 6 months being jobless and depleted almost all of my savings. The stress (and desperation) of being jobless... is not something I want to ever experience again.

That leads me to another point.

The fact is, although I didn't stay long in certain jobs because of the toxic environment, did future/potential employers understand? Not really. In the past, I got questioned a few times before about those jobs which I stayed on for only a few months. Could I honestly tell them about the situation I was facing? Not really. Because they may take it the wrong way, and may think I am a whiner and a person who cannot take harsh words or stressful situation. There is no way to know. So I try to come up with "reasonable" reasons why I had to leave or try not to go into too much details about how terrible things were so I don't appear to be badmouthing my past employers. I still put those work experiences into my resume because I want to be honest. But I don't know if it has been affecting my chances when I apply for jobs.

Despite that, did I ever regret leaving those toxic workplaces? No. Because I got into better workplaces despite the difficulties.

Workplaces with great bosses and colleagues. People who were nice, encouraging and positive. There may be other kinds of difficulties we may face at work, but if the people are nice, it makes it a lot more bearable and better for us mentally and emotionally.

We are already facing various challenges at work (at home, and in our life in general), we don't need to be constantly put down or bullied to add on to our stress or workload. That is unnecessary and unfair to us. And it should not and should never be considered as a norm to be tolerated with.

If you are a victim, make a stand or extricate yourself from the bad situation.

Disclaimer: This is not written with anyone or any particular organisation in mind. 

Update [11 May 2015]: Saw this article on how a man was bullied into mental breakdown and depression by his boss and colleagues. I believe this kinda of bullying is what they call, mobbing. It's really sad how people can stand by and do nothing or kick someone when he/she is down. And it's even sadder how there are people who have absolutely no regard to other people's dignity or doesn't seem to even regard them as a person. What kinda decent human being does that to others? Those kind of behaviour should be punishable by law and those perpetrators should be publicly shamed.

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