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Commentary: What Jimmy Fallon taught us about toxic behaviour in the workplace

SINGAPORE: Job stress, lower satisfaction with work, decreased mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases – these are some of the documented consequences of workplace bullying. Can you identify with any of them?

Late-night host Jimmy Fallon recently apologised to staff at NBC’s The Tonight Show, after a Rolling Stones investigation revealed a toxic culture behind the scenes of the talk show, one filled with “good Jimmy days” and “bad Jimmy days”.

The expose cited interviews with 16 former and current employees, alleging that Fallon was prone to erratic behaviour and outbursts. It was commonplace for staff to joke about “wanting to kill themselves”, and guests’ dressing rooms were used as “crying rooms”.

It’s not uncommon for talk shows to be a hotbed of toxic workplace allegations. In 2020, BuzzFeed News reported a work environment “dominated by fear” on Ellen DeGeneres’ chat show.

Outside of talk shows and the United States, though, workplace bullying is unfortunately a pervasive issue across industries.

More than one in five people employed – almost 23 per cent – have experienced violence and harassment in the workplace, whether physical, psychological or sexual, according to a global survey last year by International Labour Organization, Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Gallup.

In a separate survey involving 18,000 people in 14 countries by consulting firm Kantar in 2019, Singapore was named as one of the countries with the highest level of workplace bullying, with almost a quarter of Singaporean employees claiming to have been bullied, undermined or harassed in the past year.

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WHAT DOES WORKPLACE BULLYING LOOK LIKE?

As researchers of organisational behaviour, two separate incidents of workplace bullying were recounted to us recently. The first involved a bully publicly criticising a junior colleague for being “not confident” and “blur”, leaving her in tears in the office. She did not report the incident for fear of repercussions by the higher-ranking and better-connected bully.

The second incident involved a bully sending a series of aggressive emails and making false accusations. The victim’s supervisor, who was copied in one of the emails, told the employee not to take things personally because that was the bully’s “working style”.

Both victims are women who had been on the job for about three months and at a mid-management level. Studies on gender and bullying prevalence, often conducted in the West, have sometimes found more women than men reporting having been bullied at work, although findings of gender differences tend to be inconsistent and inconclusive.

There are many types of workplace bullying such as social undermining (for example, hindering someone’s workplace functioning and success), identity threat (questioning someone’s sense of competence and self-worth), outright harassment (openly inflicting emotional pain), and more subtle forms like gaslighting, which can lead victims to think that they are imagining things.

Other subtle workplace bullying behaviours include giving an employee the silent treatment, intentionally withholding information they need, limiting their ability to express their opinions, situating their workspace in an isolated location, spreading false rumours about their personal lives and work performance, intentionally excluding them from meetings, encouraging jokes about them, and flaunting their superior status over the victim in a condescending manner.

Based on the various definitions, have you been bullied or bullied others at work?

The person in the second incident above experienced gaslighting and other subtle forms of bullying from her former supervisor, whom she worked with for a few years. She told us that “(the bully) was my boss and had the human resources department on her side. I couldn’t do anything. It’s thanks to COVID-19 that I could work from home … Being physically apart was good for my sanity”.

This illustrates two key points about workplace bullying. First, bullies are almost exclusively a higher-status member. Status can be formal (for example, the bully has a higher rank or designation) or informal (bully has better relationships with superiors). A review of workplace bullying research found no studies that explicitly studied bullying by lower-status organisational members.

Second, COVID-19 and the transition to remote work served as a preventive factor against workplace bullying – that is, working from home provided victims with some respite from their bullies.

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TURNING A BLIND EYE?

Mitchell Kusy’s book Why I Don’t Work Here Anymore: A Leader’s Guide to Offset the Financial and Emotional Costs of Toxic Employees tells the story of why he resigned from his job because of a toxic person. He didn’t tell on his toxic peer because he didn’t think his boss would believe him. Despite being the cause of others leaving as well, the toxic peer was regarded as “an organisational star”.

This was exactly how the victim in the second incident above felt too – there’s no point in reporting the bully. By telling the victim that the bully is good at their job and that’s their working style, the boss is creating a toxic working environment where the organisation is willing to sacrifice others by letting the bully continue his/her acts.

What can employees do then if they find themselves in a similar situation? Speaking to the boss is a problem-focused coping strategy. Others include talking with the bully, inflicting revenge, taking frequent and prolonged medical leave, transferring to another role or leaving for another job. None of these strategies are consistently effective or optimal for the victim.

Similarly, emotion-focused coping strategies, such as using humour or suppressing expressions, will only minimise the negative consequences of bullying, rather than eliminate the problem.

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COMPANIES MUST TAKE ACTION

Outside of the organisation, workers in Singapore can find help from the Ministry of Manpower and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices.

The upcoming Workplace Fairness Legislation will also legislate the requirement for employers to put in place proper grievance handling processes, which include protecting the confidentiality of employees who report on workplace discrimination.

Three broad factors interact and account for workplace bullying: Enabling factors (for example, power imbalance, low perceived cost of bullying), motivating factors (rewards system encourages excessive workplace competition, difficulties in laying off employees), and triggers (the organisation is undergoing crises and change, changes in work roles and members).

Senior management must know that workplace bullying is detrimental not only to the health of individuals but also that of organisations – workplace bullying is a symptom of poor organisational health.

Leaders and HR managers can take concrete actions to address enabling factors (for example, by providing direct feedback to the bully), motivating factors (by not rewarding bullying behaviour), and triggers (by providing clarity about work roles and responsibilities).

Crucially, organisations should not put the whole burden of proof on the target because they often do not have the resources or support to singlehandedly prove their case – the same lack of resources and organisational power is often the reason why they are targeted in the first place.

If you are a witness of workplace bully, what can you do? Many people chose to mind their own business or gossip among colleagues – both are not helpful. Organisations should have a whistle blower policy and provide a safe space for reporting of such misconduct.

And, if you’ve been guilty of bullying others, stop!

Dr Victor Seah is Acting Director, Centre of Excellence for Behavioural Insights at Work (BI@Work) as Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) while Valerie Ng is with the Teaching & Learning Centre and an Associate Faculty at the same university.

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