Legal Issues and Recent Developments, Published by the Lurie Law Firm LLC

Power Harassment and Workplace Bullying

In my various roles as in-house Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer and employment attorney  in private practice, I have heard numerous employee complaints about a “hostile work environment” and “harassment.”  Frequently, these complaints are about abusive bosses, workplace bullying and demeaning behavior.  On further questioning, the “harassment” often falls far short of the legal standard of “severe or pervasive” unwelcome and demeaning conduct and comments based on gender, age, race, religion, national origin, disability or other protected categories.

After recently concluding a conversation with a potential client, explaining this legal standard, I happened to glance at my bookcase,.  My eyes feel on  some of my books about Japan.  I recalled a training session I attended in Japan a couple of years ago, dedicated to the topic of “power harassment,” a growing legal issue in that country. 

One of the instructors discussed different actual reported cases, in which the court found that there was  illegal “power harassment.” In some cases, supervisors “roared” at their employees.  In another case, a supervisor made an employee drink out of his shoe.  And in yet another case of illegal power harassment, ,a supervisor made a subordinate shave his head as punishment.

One of the presenters, who was an attorney in Japan, recounted the abuse that he suffered as a junior attorney at his firm.  He swore that, when he became partner, he would never treat his employees that way.  He was surprised to recently learn that his associates felt that he was, in fact, a bully.  He thought about it, and realized that they were right.  In fact, he openly acknowledged that his behavior was as bad, if not worse, than that of his prior supervisors.  Amazingly, he then stated that, upon reflection, he realized that his behavior was entirely appropriate, because it would have been unfair for his subordinates to have an easier time than he was forced to endure.  And so the cycle continues.

One of my American colleagues was flabbergasted.  She wondered how it was possible that supervisors could engage in this egregious behavior, but even more floored by the fact that employees would accept this.  I believe that this abuse was possible based, in part, on the lack of mobility in the Japanese workforce; employees are traditionally expected to work for the same employer from graduation to retirement.  If one has no choice but to stay, supervisors have the leverage to do what they want, and employees generally have few options: accept it, try to complain (and endure possible retaliation), or try to get the law changed.

Increasingly, I am seeing despair in those who come to me.  Put simply, in the current economic environment, the leverage in the workplace has changed, and employees feel that they can’t readily quit and find another job.  They feel stuck.  While bullying may not be illegal, prudent employers may want to be diligent to make sure that supervisors do not abuse this power, lest they find themselves with a demoralized workforce and mass migrations once the economy recovers.

Tags: bullying, , sexual harassment

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