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Commentary: Why toxic workplaces can mean bullying colleagues

Bullying, abusive bosses often characterise toxic workplaces but perceived rivalry may lead some colleagues to join in, say Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business' Erica Xu and Xu Huang.

Commentary: Why toxic workplaces can mean bullying colleagues

Abusive bosses in workplaces may lead to bullying behaviour from colleagues (Photo: iStock/narith_2527)

HONG KONG: The pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health like never before. In many developed economies, COVID-19 has precipitated a Great Resignation and brought about major shifts in work culture – hybrid work models, mental health days, and company transparency are strategies used to retain talent in a tight labour market. 

Toxic workplaces – generally negative work environments of dysfunction, conflict and bullying that result in disengagement, stress and even trauma – exist globally. CEO Vishal Garg, notorious for firing 900 workers on a Zoom call, reportedly called employees names, even accusing them of “stealing” from the company by being unproductive.

They have gained attention in Singapore. Employees, it seems, are no longer holding back on calling out toxic workplaces.

A TODAY report on 10 individuals’ experiences included a boss who sent derogatory text messages using the phrases “human trash”, “you deserve to die”, and “your mother should have had an abortion".

In 2021, it was reported that a former WWF Singapore employee was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after alleged bullying by her ex-boss. She told CNA that her former boss constantly criticised her performance and manipulated her into thinking that everything was her fault, to the point where she dreaded going into the office every day.

Bullying often starts at the top. The power struggle between superiors and their subordinates is often pegged as the reason for toxicity not being called out, with third parties cited as being too scared to come forward at the risk of losing their jobs.

But in a toxic workplace, things might not be as clear cut as this suggests.


Colleagues are not always silent, fearful observers. Far from feeling sorry for co-workers, some may experience a sense of schadenfreude, or “evil pleasure”, and even join in the bullying.

We recently investigated how abusive behaviour by supervisors can influence interactions between victims and their colleagues.

Participants were given a hypothetical scenario: They imagined themselves as students witnessing a fellow classmate receive abuse at the hand of their professor, such as being told their ideas were stupid.

In some scenarios, participants were told they were in direct competition with the hypothetical student, say for internship spots, opportunities to study abroad and prestigious awards.

Our findings suggest colleagues who perceive victims to be rivals tend to derive pleasure from seeing them get bullied. This sense of rivalry in turn motivates individuals to engage in interpersonal destructive behaviour, including putting the victims down, being condescending or making derogatory remarks about them.

From a social comparison perspective, rivals are threats to one’s ego. People tend to minimise such threats by engaging in defensive behaviours, both to get ahead of the rival and to feed one’s sense of evil pleasure. In the workplace, colleague-on-colleague bullying can occur in similar ways.

Why does this happen? Humans are social beings. We have a fundamental need to belong and gain acceptance from others. We are also instinctively aware of a general hierarchy in various social circles ranging from school and our own families, to most noticeably, the office. 

Thus we tend to look to leaders of a pack to determine which actions are acceptable or permissible. In the workplace, witnessing a supervisor abuse a rival colleague provides an opportunity to imitate the bad behavior.

(Photo: iStock/PeopleImages)


Many of us enter jobs hoping to avoid “office politics” healthy competition is to be expected but there is no need to step on others to get ahead. But could it also be that we’re unaware that our colleagues feel threatened by us in a one-sided rivalry?

One major predictor of rivalry is a sense of similarity, such as workers in the same position or rank. Downward social comparison theory – where we look to someone worse off to feel better about ourselves suggests that some experience feelings of superiority when they witness their rivals’ ordeals.

Evolution is partly to blame for the involuntary sense of pleasure we feel when someone considered more successful or threatening to us fails. We are motivated to beat our rivals – even if feeling like we’re winning comes passively, as we watch them suffer. And when that is not enough, some will even turn to abusive behaviour themselves.

We like to think of ourselves as altruistic beings, but more often than not, humans seek to blame, victim shame, and find comfort in others’ hardship. We tend to enjoy hearing about others’ embarrassing or "cancellable" moments, finding pleasure in the debacles of “successful” people as research suggests social group competition can directly affect our reward-processing neural systems.

This phenomenon becomes more complicated at work, where competition often overshadows compassion if people prioritise bonuses and promotions over social relationships.


The truth is, organisations cannot afford to close one eye about workplace bullying and chalk it up to competitive work environments.

Toxic workplaces are often bred from the misconception that high pressure means better output. In fact, workplaces with high numbers of disengaged employees have 40 per cent lower earnings per share, are 18 per cent less productive and have a 50 per cent higher turnover.

So what can employees actually do in the face of bullying behaviour from colleagues?

Employees are encouraged to report abuse to their HR department. Knowing one’s legal rights in areas like working hours, compensation rules and fair employee practices will help to substantiate complaints against these types of bullying.

Though it seems less difficult to lodge complaints against bullying colleagues rather than abusive bosses, some may hesitate if the colleague in question is seen to have the boss’ favour or if they don’t think they will be taken seriously. We often hear people dismissing HR as protecting the interests of a company more than its employees.

HR can make a concerted effort to create a safe environment for such problems to be raised, such as by being available for private meetings or instituting anonymous feedback channels.

Ideally, HR or other employees can act as neutral mediators and show that action is taken to remedy the situation. This can include recognising that friendly competition companies try to nurture may evolve into harmful rivalry, and taking steps to monitor bad behaviour.

In Singapore, there’s also the option of approaching the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) or even the Ministry of Manpower. But it might be a challenge when only 20 per cent report incidents of workplace discrimination, and only 5 per cent of those seek formal help from government agencies.

It is surely also tempting to simply quit the job before the situation gets worse. While there is no guarantee that the next workplace will be better, those who have the financial means to leave can stop further emotional trauma that can have long-term effects on one’s mental well-being.

The global pandemic has made workers less willing to put up with toxic work environments. And as more stories emerge about leaders being called out for abusive behaviour, we need to be able to talk about the problem if we are to do anything about it.

Dr Erica Xu is Associate Professor, at the Department of Management at the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business. Professor Xu Huang is Chair Professor of the Department of Management and Associate Dean (Research & Postgraduate Studies) at the same university.

Amid predictions of a great resignation wave, why are workers so unhappy? Listen to HR experts weigh in on CNA's Heart of the Matter:

Source: CNA/ch


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