The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


MARCH 2015

Inspiring Respect and Trust

Steps to combat power harassment at the office

By Norman Grant

Workplace bullying is never good for business, and is especially bad for a company’s reputation. Bearing in mind that immense damage can be inflicted by just one disgruntled employee, we might consider the following scenario.

One weekday afternoon, employee Rieko Sato was busy doing her work. Looking up at the clock on the wall for the umpteenth time that day, she saw it was 6pm. Her manager, Ms. Koga, was away from her desk, and her colleagues, Mr. Tanaka and Ms. Abe, were sitting nearby.

Glancing over, Abe said, “Rieko, you have been smiling all afternoon, what’s the reason?”

Still smiling, Sato replied, “I am going to meet some former classmates for dinner after work today.” “Great!” replied Abe as she stood up, “shall we get some coffee?”

Shortly after the two left their seats, manager Koga returned to her desk. “Ms. Sato is very happy today,” Tanaka told Koga, “as she is meeting former classmates for dinner later.” Not long after, Abe and Sato returned from their coffee break.

Koga called out, “Ms. Sato, I have to present a business review at a 10am meeting tomorrow. Please put it together and have it on my desk by 9:30am.” Sato froze in shock, while Tanaka and Abe played deaf. “Certainly,” she replied, hanging her head.

It was a depressing scene as her colleagues left for the day, and she struggled well into the night to complete the assignment.

In the morning, the staff returned to the office and exchanged greetings, although Sato seemed sleepy and nervous. Koga picked up the business review from her desk and began to read it.

Suddenly she stopped and called Sato over. “What is this?” she asked, her voice growing louder. “This is not what I asked you to do. This is completely different from what I have to present at the meeting. Why did you disobey me?” Throwing the report at her, Koga barked, “You have 30 minutes to change it. Here is what I want . . . ”

This was not the first time that Sato had found herself at the receiving end of Koga’s wrath. But Tanaka and Abe continued to work, as they had done previously when witnessing Koga’s abusive behavior toward Sato.

Only this time, Sato decided that something had to be done to end her silent suffering. After some thought, she assembled a list of possible courses of action.

Taking action
Workplace bullying is defined as trying to harm, manipulate, or control a target. Different from a one-off incident, bullying is repetitive behavior intended to torment the victim. In corporate Japan, rather than “workplace bullying,” however, the term “power harassment” is generally used.

In the context of the above situation, what can be said of Tanaka and Abe, bystanders to the abuse? They had the option of allying themselves with the target but, instead, chose to be passive witnesses.

Perhaps their indifference was due to Koga’s rank and their strong desire to restore harmony quickly at any cost. Yet, Sato desperately needed someone to take notice.

There are always choices to be made when faced with difficult situations. One option for Sato would have been to take no action, and continue to be victimized by the office bully. However, the bullying would gradually take a toll on her wellbeing.

So, how long could this choice be pursued? Until she exploded out of frustration, perhaps? But, were this to happen, who would feel sorry for her? She could resign, but might face a similarly painful situation in her next job.

Alternatively, she could consider taking the following actions.

• Check if the company has a policy on bullying or power harassment.
• Reflect on whether she was doing something contrary to her company rules, such as not following instructions carefully, arriving late frequently, not fulfilling commitments, gossiping, or not paying attention.
• Consider if the event really qualifies as bullying. An isolated event does not indicate a pattern of behavior.
• Were systematic bullying identified, discreetly start a journal and document the facts and physical evidence of every occurrence.
• Consult with a trusted mentor.
• Build a support base of colleagues, so as not to become isolated.
• Speak up. This is easier said than done, and one should bear in mind that constructive confrontation is not about starting an argument. It is about working toward a solution.

Sato would need to remain polite and professional, speaking without showing emotion. Shouting counter insults, for example, might result in an escalation of the bullying, so a calm tone of voice would be best.

In the interests of gender equality in the workplace, corporations need to adopt policies that result in respect and trust.

The rudeness and humiliation that Sato suffered will continue to go unnoticed unless, without fear of retribution, she is able to follow procedures put in place by her company for the resolution of such incidents.

While there are no laws specifically to cover workplace bullying, companies are required to provide a safe environment in which the wellbeing of staff is assured. Top management must, thus, be proactive.

They should take the initiative to formulate and implement relevant policies and procedures, and not wait for an incident to occur. Otherwise, companies risk high employee turnover, high rates of absenteeism, and poor working relationships, all of which can lead to less collaboration, and impact the bottom line.

Taking action to stem this silent epidemic is not easy for top management, but here are a few suggestions.

• Formulate a zero tolerance, anti-bullying contract for all employees to sign.
• Explain what workplace bullying is—and is not.
• Create guidelines to be followed once a complaint has been made.
• Enforce consequences for bullying, including dismissal.
• Implement actions effectively throughout the company.
• Develop programs to educate staff.
• Provide interactive training targeting all levels to prevent bullying.
• Start a feedback culture.
• Appoint an unbiased, outside mediator to care about, listen to, and empathize with victims.

If allowed to fester, workplace bullying can adversely affect both the internal functioning and the external perception of a company. It should never be condoned. Companies must become proactive and act now.


Norman Grant is a corporate training specialist with 25 years’ working experience in Asia. He specializes in cross-cultural awareness as well as diversity and inclusion.


While there are no laws specifically to cover workplace bullying, companies are required to provide a safe environment in which the wellbeing of staff is assured.