Career Advice

10 things you need to know about workplace bullying in Hong Kong

min read
Mikaela Thompson

It’s alarming and unsettling to know that bullying in workplaces is a common practice in Hong Kong, apparently experienced by just over half of all workers randomly polled (cited in 2013 by Even more perturbing is that most of these respondents admitted suffering in silence at the hands of their superiors who were meting out the abuse.

It’s startling because this kind of behaviour produces a toxic work culture that negatively affects everyone in the company e.g., a notable decline in morale, productivity, efficiency and, ultimately, damaging a firm’s reputation. 

So why does this self-defeating strategy persist, and why is it, seemingly condoned or accepted through silence? The fact that about half of all employees polled admitted they have been or are subjected to some form of bullying at work, suggests that anyone is at risk of being a potential target, irrespective of work service, career stage, capabilities, or weaknesses – I mean, surely half of Hong Kong’s workforce, by projection, isn’t lacking the competency to do their jobs! 

Before reflecting on this phenomenon further, let’s give this term some context. Bullying is perceived as a sustained pattern of unreasonable behaviour (any kind that humiliates, intimidates or threatens) directed towards an employee, or group of colleagues, that risks undermining their physical and mental health and safety. By design, bullying sets the target up for failure and seeks to break the target psychologically through direct and indirect acts of aggression, like, destructive criticism, alienation etc.  In its nature, bullying in the workplace is subtle, and sly, therefore not readily visible to others. Often the damage has already been inflicted before it’s recognized, acknowledged and dealt with…if ever. 

10 things you need to know about workplace bullying in Hong Kong.

1) Sadly, there’s currently no statutory definition of workplace bullying in Hong Kong, nor is there a specific law against bullying. Problematic yes, and it’s probably part of the reason why such behaviour has got a firm hold in so many businesses here, and in Asia generally. Could it be that Asian cultures view bullying differently from Western cultures, most of the latter already having specific legislation prohibiting bullying? 

2) In fact, anecdotal evidence supports this view that bullying is more acceptable in Asian cultures than in Western ones.

3) It’s also true, some behaviour Western cultures categorize as bullying, are seen here as necessary to motivate employees to do better, much like a ‘tough love’ campaign e.g., shouting at/singling out/cajoling a target in public or in front of co-workers to up their game, etc. 

4) However, the more recent international #Metoo movement has thrust this issue into local news outlets and public consciousness, with several senior leaders making controversial headlines. 

5) Bullying at work is not new. You may recall other bullying instances making the HK press too, such as, in 2000 when a domestic helper was kicked, punched pushed and subjected to degrading psychological abuse by her employer. The court, in turn, found the employer in breach of an implied duty of care thereby liable to pay damages. Also, in 2017, a major public transport network here was accused by the Labour Union of turning a blind eye to bullying citing verbal abuse in public areas; also in 2017, the HK postal authority was accused of failing to properly deal with discrimination against workers with disabilities citing a case where a senior postal inspector referred to an employee with a cleft palate as ‘broken mouth’. Two telecom workers claimed their superiors at HK Broadband Network subjected them to severe workplace bullying e.g., public humiliation, forced to dye one’s hair black, having her work qualifications and capabilities questioned. The Workers’ Union criticized this company for failing to take sufficient actions to prevent workplace conflicts. 

6) On a positive note, the publication of all these cases underscores a growing awareness and intolerance of bullying in the workplace at any level in Hong Kong, despite its pervasiveness. This is a step in the right direction. 

7) However, companies need to be proactive in creating a bully-free culture. This should include making your company’s policy on bullying unequivocal and accessible to all workers, such as, having information about identifying unacceptable behaviour, steps to take if it’s experienced, results of breaches and the promotion of the rights of workers to a safe, healthy work environment. The policy should be placed on a highly visible platform, for example, the company intranet. Managers should keep tabs on their team and be alert to signs of harassment or bullying to nip it in the bud. 

8) The right tone in a company is set from the top but it’s everyone’s responsibility to eradicate inappropriate behaviour. 

9) A good ethical work culture results in good business. It mitigates personal liability and enhances the corporate brand.   

10) Even though bullying isn’t illegal here, there are a variety of legal avenues that can be pursued to hold perpetrators to account and reward damages to their targets. Unfortunately, this course of action is often relegated to ‘the too hard basket’ for the sufferers of abuse. Why? For the simple reasons that employers have more financial and human resources to back up a legal defense or counter challenge and they can find an army of other witnesses. The best way forward for these employees at this point would be to find a new job before being forced to resign (a tactic used to avoid having to give you severance pay). 

Key take outs:

Workplace bullying in Hong Kong is still prevalent, although awareness of its counterproductive effects is growing, especially through media reports, which is helping to improve work cultures. Silence in the face of bullying at work may not see the actions of the bully change or cease, much less change the work culture that bred them. Taking it on the chin could amplify your feelings of disempowerment, self-doubt and resentment for the loss of job satisfaction and career prospects. So, keep in mind other actions you could take to resolve the situation, like, mediation, reporting or confronting the bully, or cultivating co-workers as shields or supports in the hope the behaviour will stop.  Your approach should suit the type and scale of bullying you’re experiencing. Litigation usually shouldn’t be your first course of action - it’s expensive and time consuming. If softer approaches fail or are unsuitable for the severity of the bullying and its adverse effects, then you should consult a lawyer. Sometimes a judiciously worded letter from a legal professional can send a bully scurrying without you enduring a court case. 

To find out more about existing ordinances that have been used for breaches under which employers who abuse their employees have been charged, refer to, ‘Dismissal under HK Law; Tribunals and Lawyers.  

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