#MeToo in the Office – Workplace Bullying in the Spotlight

The international growth of the #MeToo movement has drawn attention not only to sexual harassment but also to bullying in the workplace. Any kind of behaviour that humiliates, intimidates or threatens can be classified as bullying.

Bullying in the spotlight

Reported workplace bullying cases are on the rise, as they continue to hit the news headlines and put a number of senior leaders in the spotlight.

Several recent high profile cases have highlighted the issue, including allegations made by staffers in MPs’ offices at the UK Parliament, where, in a survey published in January 2018, 24 members of staff reported having been bulled by the MP they work for. A new grievance procedure could see MPs being sacked if they are found to have bullied their staff.

Also in January 2018, three former employees of the Green Party in Canada accused their leader Elizabeth May of creating a toxic work environment with behaviour that included shouting at and humiliating employees in front of their workmates. As the media pressure mounted, several former staff also called on her to step down and resign.

Definition of “bullying”

Presently, there is no statutory definition of workplace bullying in Hong Kong. Bullying may be viewed as a repeated pattern of unreasonable behaviour that is directed towards a colleague, or group of colleagues, that presents a risk to health and safety.

Examples of workplace bullying towards co-workers includes any behaviour that may be viewed as humiliating, intimidating or threatening. It may include the making of constant criticisms without a valid basis, raising one’s voice towards the person, or making them feel ostracised from the team.

Employers in Hong Kong owe a general duty of care to their employees. If an employer becomes aware or reasonably should have known that bullying is taking place in the workplace and does nothing about it, that could be a breach of the duty. In addition, employers should also be aware of the implied duty of “mutual trust and confidence” under which an employer must avoid acting in a way that is calculated and likely to seriously damage its relationship with employees.

Bullying at work in Hong Kong

Conduct that destroys trust extends beyond simple physical abuse.

In December 2017, a major public transport network serving Hong Kong was criticised by a labour union for turning a blind eye to bullying in the workplace. Examples of mistreatment cited by staff reportedly included verbal abuse in public areas.

Elsewhere in the service sector, Hong Kong’s postal authority was accused in August 2017 of failing to handle properly discrimination against workers with disabilities. Victims reportedly said that complaints to the management of Hongkong Post had been ignored. The complaints included an incident in which a senior postal inspector was understood to have referred to an employee with a cleft palate as “broken mouth”.

In a Hong Kong employment case in 2000, an employer was found to have kicked, pushed and punched a domestic helper, subjecting her to psychological abuse of a frightening and degrading nature. The employer was found liable to pay damages, as the court found the behaviour was a breach of the implied duty.

Confronting the bullies

Permitting bullying to continue in a workplace can result in decreased morale, lowered productivity and increased staff turnover. Allowed to continue, it can adversely affect the company’s reputation in the market, making it harder to attract and retain talent.

Having a good ethical work culture is therefore good business, as it mitigates personal liability and enhances the corporate brand.
A top down approach is however required. Employers should communicate to staff - at all levels - that bad behaviour in the workplace can mean the loss of an individual’s job and reputation, as well as harming the firm’s own reputation.

Employers should consider implementing policies which prohibit all types of harassment and bullying in the workplace. Such policies should include examples of behaviour that will not be tolerated, encourage reporting of unacceptable behaviour and state the consequences of breach.

As with many other aspects of corporate governance, it is all about setting the right tone from the top. However, it is also everyone’s responsibility to eliminate inappropriate behaviour in the workplace!

Jurisdictions: 

Counsel, Clifford Chance