SINGAPORE: Ragging, a ritual or tradition, that one goes through in order to join or gain acceptance in an in-group, is often meant to be an embarrassing process for the victim, and is common in close-knit groups such as military organisations, sports teams and fraternities around the world.
Some claim that the process of ragging can produce cohesiveness and membership loyalty, and may end with the inclusion and initiation of the victim into the group. Most feel a sense of liking and loyalty thereafter, and so are likely to accept practices.
Ragging experiences are “justified” since members see it as a rite of passage for newcomers. And with the mindset of “I had to do it, so you have to as well” instilled in group members, many support and perpetuate the practice of such rituals despite bans and stringent controls.
Participants may not see ragging as causing harm, especially if participants in a rite of passage had survived it and came out closer than ever.
These practices are, however, dangerous.
Students who have difficulties transitioning into university can end up feeling victimised or even depressed from ragging rituals as part of orientation activities they have little choice but to take part in.
Ragging can also be violent, and in rare cases, might even lead to death.
In 2013, a student of a fraternity in the City University of New York died from head injuries as a result of extreme ragging rituals. He had to carry a weighed-down backpack through a gauntlet of fraternity members across a yard of ice, blindfolded, and was tackled repeatedly, according to news reports.
Last week, five Singapore Civil Defence Force officers were charged over the death of Corporal Kok Yuen Chin, who had drowned during a ragging incident. Corporal Kok’s death has incited discussions about ragging practices and bullying in the workplace, and how future incidences can be prevented.
INTENTIONAL OR HARMLESS PRANK?
While they do share certain key characteristics, ragging and bullying are not the same. Ragging aims to induce liking of the group and results in inclusivity and cohesiveness. Harm is never a goal, but a sometimes unseen by-product. Bullies, on the other hand, carry out their actions with the intention to harm and isolate the victim from the group.
Ragging rituals are often only carried out once on a single victim, while bullying is an ongoing process of harassing.
In most cases, perpetrators of ragging function in an organised team with a practical goal, while workplace bullies work alone or as a clique that has no functional value in terms of workplace contributions.
Workplace bullying and harassment cover a wider scope that includes passive-aggressiveness and threats that include the withholding of promotions, even though both ragging and bullying include verbal and physical abuse and seemingly harmless pranks that can turn ugly.
Contrary to popular beliefs, workplace bullies do not target their victims out of low self-esteem, nor are their targets necessarily loners of the team.
Most bullies often act out due to their inability to manage and react to stress or problems adequately and handle their experiences in a positive manner. Only a minority possess antisocial tendencies that result in destructive behaviours toward others and the company.
Victims are usually performers or popular members of the team – the perfect target for bullies to channel their stress.
Workplace bullying behaviours are generally difficult to spot, but their effects are extremely visible. If a performer shows a sudden drop in performance or change in attitude, that might be a sign they are being bullied.
Abrupt changes in team behaviours and dynamics must also be watched closely. These are alarming especially when someone new joins the team.
HARMFUL ACTIONS NOT TOLERABLE
While public attention has been focused on stamping out ragging, it is just as important to focus our efforts on identifying and addressing workplace bullying. While certain bullies cannot be deterred in the same way that ragging can, most of them can be changed.
The first step is to go beyond stating that bullying will not be tolerated. Laying out the details of what will not be accepted helps to guide a better understanding of the behaviours that constitute bullying, as certain bullies are unaware that their actions are considered bullying.
Second, never ignore claims and complaints, but investigate them with a clear and transparent process that all employees have been informed of.
Last, members of an organisation can help create a bully-free environment by stepping in or reporting whenever an incident occurs.
While ragging should never be condoned, it shouldn’t mean that we shy away from initiation practices altogether. When done right under adequate management, initiation rituals have been shown to increase team unity and performance. They are still beneficial in militaristic or sports settings given the nature of these groups.
Initiation rituals should always be carried out with an atmosphere of mutual respect, or include certain bonding elements.
Having meals together, or outdoor team-building activities, are some examples that do not infringe on the dignity of participants. Likewise, these practices can also be used to increase workplace bonding and cooperation, which can reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying.
The key takeaway is that any kind of practice that results in harm, both physical and psychological, should be explicitly prohibited.
Joel Yang is a clinical psychologist with Mind what Matters Psychological Consultancy. He regularly treats individuals who have difficulties managing work relationships and environments.