The importance of the workplace is only second to that of home, as American sociologist Ray Oldenburg rightfully calls it "second place", where people spend most of their time in the day. Unfortunately, a social environment of such centrality to people's lives, where they come together to work towards a common goal, also ends up being somewhere they often find themselves most vulnerable to harm. The past few years have brought into focus the growing issue of workplace bullying in traditional as well as remote work environments, sparking conversations and research around workplace dynamics and power imbalances.
In this article, we explore the concept of workplace bullying in India, delve into its social, cultural and structural causes, and present possible remedies and preventive measures that can be applied.
Table of Contents
Workplace Bullying: How Does it Manifest?
Workplace bullying is a deliberate and repetitive form of mistreatment that goes beyond incivility and takes on a pattern of demeaning and harmful acts or aggressive behaviours toward individuals who might be in a vulnerable or subservient position. According to a report by India Today in 2020, 55% of Indian employees experience bullying at work, while a survey by Monster.com suggests that 94% have been indirect witnesses to instances of harassment at the workplace.
Although instances of physical harassment and violence are not uncommon, forms of harassment in workplaces usually manifest in psychological and emotional abuse through patterns of toxic behaviour. Bullying actions may be overt and direct, such as verbal abuse and excessive/improper teasing, or could be classified as covert bullying, understated hostile actions which are equally damaging to the victim.
Recent reports by organisations, the UN International Labour Organization, the Lloyds Register Foundation and Gallup, reveal that one-third of individuals experiencing harassment at the workplace have encountered it in more than one form, with 6.3% facing all three forms—physical, psychological, and sexual violence—in their careers. Psychological violence is the most common, reported by 17.9% of workers, followed by 8.5% experiencing physical violence, mostly men, and 6.3%, predominantly women, facing sexual harassment. Over 60% of victims reported multiple incidents within the last five years.
Bullying on Job Performance
Bullying actions may be tied to workplace evaluation based on competence, such as being assigned overwhelming workloads or, conversely, tasks below the individual's competency level, excessive scrutiny of one's work, and disregard for opinions and perspectives. Withholding crucial work-related information, making unfounded allegations, encouraging favouritism and denying claims for sick leaves or holidays are also implicit or indirect forms of bullying in the workplace.
Contemporary workplaces, governed by the spirit of competition and the need to excel above colleagues, make it the perfect breeding ground for petty grudges and jealousies, leading to personal resentment. Such hostile work environments enable patterns of bullying by peers, such as covert actions like scheming and backbiting, spreading unpleasant rumours, ignoring and exclusion, playing practical jokes and excessive teasing.
Although such types of bullying may not cause active harm to the victim, they do have a damaging and steady corrosive effect on their mental health.
Physical Intimidation/Violent Bullying
Hostile bullying includes dangerous acts such as yelling, anger outbursts, intimidating gestures (finger-pointing, invasion of personal space, shoving, blocking/barring the way) and lastly, threats of violence or physical abuse or actual abuse. Hostile bullying occurrences pose an active threat of physical harm, typically expressed through verbal abuse or intimidation tactics.
The worrisome trend of workplace sexual harassment continues despite efforts to establish safe and non-discriminatory workplaces in India. The number of pending cases in the country's largest companies has surged by 101% in 2023, highlighting a significant backlog and failure of companies to address these issues promptly.
Workplace sexual harassment is a distinct form of workplace harassment, encompassing unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or any verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature that disrupts an individual's work performance or fosters a dangerous work environment. Examples of sexual harassment may involve:
- Persistent romantic or sexual advances despite rejection.
- Inappropriate and suggestive comments about a person's appearance, body, or clothing.
- Improper gazing in a sexual or intimidating manner.
- Sharing uncomfortable jokes of a sexual nature.
- Non-consensual physical contact in the form of touching, patting, or groping.
Cyberbullying or Remote Work Harassment
The 2020 pandemic-necessitated shift from the physical workplace to remote work anticipated a minimisation of workplace bullying to a great extent. However, claims of harassment have continued from employees working from home, persisting in the form of cyberbullying, which differs from traditional workplace bullying in India.
Remote environments do not possess the advantages of face-to-face communication, such as casual interactions and social cues like tone and body language, which help foster workplace friendship and camaraderie. This may lead to miscommunications, misunderstandings, employee isolation and suppressed resentment.
Remote bullying may manifest as cutting remarks during video calls, deliberately exclusion from online meetings, and engaging in malicious gossip. It may also devolve into dangerous cyberbullying in escalated bullying episodes through various communication channels like emails, messaging platforms, and video calls. Cyber aggression entails aggressive behaviour online in the form of defamatory comments or posts against the targeted employee via phone messages or social media.
This type of bullying allows the aggressor to remain anonymous while perpetrating malevolent behaviour. Moreover, employees working in the hybrid mode may be subjected to cyberbullying in tandem with traditional bullying. Exposure to remote harassment has the same negative impact on mental health as in-person harassment.
What Leads to Workplace Bullying in India?
A 2017 qualitative study conferred that workplace bullying in India occurs in four sequential stages: initial exposure and confusion regarding mistreatment, making attributions, exploring available options within the organisation, and adapting to the current situation. This sets in motion a harmful cycle of workplace abuse in which every victim accepts their mistreatment as the norm and perpetuates it in turn to other perceived or actual inferiors.
The phenomenon of workplace bullying in India originates from the complex interplay of a flawed system based on unequal power relationships and the Indian cultural context, which normalises them. Some such systemic organisational and social flaws are discussed below.
High-Pressure Work Environment: Highly demanding work environments in modern companies often cause stress, anxiety and burnout. As a coping mechanism for workplace frustration, some employees may resort to bullying tactics to gain a sense of power and control.
Poor Leadership: Poor and insufficient training may yield inexperienced managers with low emotional intelligence who foster hostile work environments and may either engage in or encourage negative behaviours.
Competitive Work Culture: In highly competitive work environments, the intense pressure to excel and stand out through cut-throat individualism may lead to interpersonal conflicts and jealousy, fostering an atmosphere where bullying may escalate in the quest for professional dominance.
Lack of Diversity and Inclusion: Companies have historically failed to maintain standards of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which results in isolation, discrimination and bullying of workers perceived as different from the norm.
- Hierarchical perspective: While social hierarchy is a widespread phenomenon, Indians are substantially inclined to organise objects, individuals, relationships and ideas hierarchically. Workplace organisations may also display echoes of the caste system, which still haunts and seeps into the organisational hierarchies in implicit ways, producing complex and imbalanced power relationships.
- Group Embeddedness: In India, social networking follows a distinct self-other dichotomy, influenced by the historically entrenched caste system. This has led to the formation of in-groups (comprising family members and those from the same caste) and out-groups (consisting of non-family members and individuals from different castes), fostering favouritism and nepotism within Indian society.
- Affective reciprocity: Within Indian society, power dynamics manifest through expressions of affection (sneh) and deference (shraddha). Individuals in positions of power receive both warranted and unwarranted favour and respect, while those lacking power face discrimination.
- Collectivism and Power Distance: A collectivist work culture, driven by a high power distance orientation, fosters a climate where workplace bullying in India is prevalent and tolerated. The emphasis on maintaining peace and harmony, coupled with a fear of retaliation, contributes to accepting such behaviour. This culture supports extensive supervisory control, authoritative leadership, and privileges for superiors, resulting in an imbalance of power. Routine misbehaviour and unethical conduct by those in power are accepted as organisational realities. Despite negative actions and morally questionable behaviour from authority figures, employees are expected to demonstrate deference, submissiveness, respect, loyalty, and dutifulness.
- Gender Inequities: India's phallocentric culture extends to the workplace, where female employees frequently face misogyny, sexist conflicts with peers and superiors, and unequal pay. The absence of a framework to address gendered abuse and gender-based injustices contributes to women's systematic oppression in the workplace.
Effects of Workplace Bullying
Bullying of employees inflicts significant stress, eroding their self-confidence and self-esteem, prompting them to question their worth and competence. This detrimental impact manifests in work-related behaviours such as burnout, absenteeism, and diminished morale, often culminating in resignations.
Beyond the professional sphere, those subjected to bullying suffer from various health-related, psychological, and affective issues. In response to mistreatment, employees often adopt passive coping strategies, like 'employee silence', which manifests in intentional or unintentional withholding of vital information from the organisation.
The impact of workplace bullying extends well beyond the personal and professional challenges of targeted individuals and can have adverse effects on the organisation. Experiences of workplace bullying may harm employee work engagement, affecting productivity, expenses, employee loyalty and workplace culture, leading to potential legal and reputation damages.
Steps to Curb Workplace Bullying
Workplace bullying in India needs to be addressed through a systemic and prevention-oriented approach. Fostering organisational environments that discourage egotistical behaviour through well-designed systems and promoting productivity, inclusivity, and psychological well-being is key.
Organisations are legally obligated to screen out negative traits like arrogance and hostility and may exercise selective hiring and training at the individual level to preserve a respectful work environment. Training in non-violent communication is essential for transforming hostility into constructive feedback.
Additionally, steps should be taken to resolve systemic issues, such as stressors like unrealistic deadlines, chronic under-resourcing and fear-driven management, to minimise instances of emotional lashing out or covert bullying in the workplace.
Organisations may also prevent instrumental bullying by implementing fair resource distribution, transparent rewards, and shared metrics for cross-functional collaboration. Maintaining transparency and creating constructive forums for regular collaborations in psychologically safe environments help deter toxicity and manipulation and foster good workplace health.
At the functional level, HR has a prime role in creating a safe and inclusive work environment. They are responsible for intervening, providing support for victims through counselling and assistance programs and, if necessary, implementing corrective disciplinary actions.
The HR must organise mandated sensitisation programs and sexual harassment training for employees and managers to expose them to the concept and aspects of bullying. Awareness of healthy and negative conduct allows employees to better identify and prevent bullying behaviour in organisations.
The HR must implement preventative measures and comprehensive anti-bullying policies, with clearly laid safeguards against harassment, including a confidential and impartial investigation process, penalties for the perpetrator(s) and compensation for the victim.
Legal Safeguards Against Workplace Bullying in India
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) contains several harassment laws that allow for the punishment of employers and employees involved in such incidents. Let us take a look at those provisions.
- The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013: Mandating Internal Complaints Committees in organisations with over ten employees, this law safeguards women employees from all forms of harassment and prescribes penalties for non-compliance.
- The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act of 1946 prohibits harassment by requiring employers to establish conduct rules. Violations may lead to disciplinary action or termination, with avenues for redressal through labour authorities.
- The Indian Penal Code, 1860: Sections like 503 and 504 address criminal intimidation and intentional insult and provide legal recourse for victims facing criminal-level mental harassment.
- The Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act, 1971: Applicable when mental harassment involves derogatory remarks about nationality or ethnicity.
- The Right to Equality under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution: Safeguarding against discrimination based on factors like caste, gender, or religion, Article 14 ensures equality before the law, protecting individuals from all forms of mental harassment.
Employees experiencing mental harassment at work can take the following legal steps:
- Report the harassment to the employer or the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) if present.
- If the harassment continues or the employer doesn't address it adequately, the victim can file a formal complaint with the ICC.
- If the workplace resolution is unsuccessful, the victim may escalate the matter to labour authorities or the police, depending on its nature and severity.
- In severe cases of mental harassment, victims have the option to file a civil suit or criminal complaint under the applicable sections of the Indian Penal Code.
Workplace bullying in India has been growing into a pervasive issue, disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups such as disabled individuals, women, and migrants. In the age of globalisation governed by economic growth and productivity, fostering a healthy organisational climate through trust, collaboration, and communication is imperative. Proactive measures must be taken at systemic, organisational and legislative levels to cleanse hostile work environments from the roots and cultivate a culture that promotes respect and inclusivity.
What is the law for harassment in the workplace in India?
Although there is no specific law against workplace bullying in India, different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) can be applied to address mental harassment in the workplace. For example, Section 503 addresses criminal intimidation, and Section 504 pertains to intentional insult meant to provoke a breach of peace. In cases where mental harassment escalates to a criminal level, individuals can file complaints under these provisions.
How do I complain about a toxic work environment?
If you're considering addressing a toxic work environment, it's advisable to initially discuss the situation with your manager for input and guidance. However, if your manager is part of the problem, consult a trusted senior leader for an objective perspective. If the situation violates company policy or has legal implications, HR should be your first point of contact.
What is the punishment for employee harassment?
The punishment for employee harassment varies based on the offence. Engaging in obscene acts or words at work can lead to imprisonment for up to three months, a fine, or both under Section 294 of the IPC. Wrongful confinement, addressed by Section 343, may result in imprisonment for up to one year, a fine, or both. Criminal intimidation, covered by Section 503, can lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a fine, or both. Making obscene gestures or remarks to a female employee, as per Section 509, is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both.