PHOTO Cathy Yeulet

When Lydia*, a 30-year-old marketing manager, received a sarcastic e-mail from her boss, she was crushed. The e-mail was sent to her, her team and several other departments, as if to publicly shame her.

“He had wanted me to send briefs to a few advertising agencies for an upcoming event, and asked to be copied on the e-mails,” Lydia shares. “He was obviously not pleased with the ones I sent and made it clear in his message.

“In his e-mail to me, he told me that I’d put no thought into the briefs, adding that if he’d wanted to approach the agencies that way, he’d have just asked his secretary to contact them. He also mentioned that my briefs made me come across as stupid and desperate.”

Her boss’ hurtful words cut so deep that Lydia didn’t go to work the next day, and avoided having lunch with her colleagues for a week. She was just too humiliated.

“I withdrew for a while until the hoo-ha died down. In time, I stopped thinking about the incident, but whenever I see my boss’ name in my inbox now, I have a sense of dread,” she adds.

Paul Heng, from Next Corporate Coaching Services, says this sort of e-mail is considered workplace bullying. It happens when someone misuses his position to hurt, abuse or insult a colleague, thereby putting the latter in a less favourable position. The victim feels powerless to retaliate or complain because she is less senior, is afraid of getting into the boss’ bad books or fears losing her job.

When it’s Abusive
Most of us have received the odd curt e-mail from our bosses, reminding us to follow up on something or warning us not to drag our feet on a task, but a bullying message is in a league of its own. Here’s how to tell:

It Uses Demeaning Language
Jennifer*, a 35-year-old sales manager, says her boss once compared her to a child who needed to be spoon-fed. “He e-mailed me saying that I couldn’t think for myself and had to have my hand held every step of the way. Then he added: ‘We don’t need babies in the office. If you want to behave like a baby, you should just come to work in diapers!’ I couldn’t believe what I was reading. He made me feel so small.”

It’s Hurtful and Humiliating
The e-mail may have been copied to others who do not need to know about the issue. In this case, it is clearly meant to highlight your wrongdoing to others and humiliate you, or put you in a bad light.

“The difference between an abusive e-mail and a strongly worded one is that the former aims to make you look or feel bad,” says Jasveer Mallany, executive leadership coach, trainer and speaker at Acquire Coaching. Unfortunately, many of us tolerate it because we assume our bosses have a right to talk to us that way.

“Asians are generally taught to not question authority,” Paul says. “We are taught to treat our higher- ups with reverence and we might view our own feelings or position as unimportant. That’s why many of us accept whatever our bosses dish out without question – even when we should question it.”

It Makes You Feel Scared
Sharon*, 35, an advertising account executive, says an ex-boss once sent her e-mails that threatened her job security. “After briefing me on an important task, he would explicitly state that if I slipped up, I’d better start looking for employment elsewhere, because he would not tolerate sub-standard work,” she explains.

“I was shaking in my boots until the project was over. Not surprisingly, I only lasted five months in that job. But before I left, I reported the threats to my HR manager. My boss was reprimanded and made to apologise to me in person.”

Dealing With an E-mail Bully
You should not ignore it, hoping it’ll go away. Here’s what you can do:

Speak to the sender immediately
Jasveer says you should clear up the matter as soon as possible. “Talk about it to get some clarity,” she says. “For all you know, your boss or colleague may just be having a bad week and is taking out her frustrations on you. You could say: ‘I was quite upset by how you worded your e-mail. If my work hasn’t been up to scratch, can we discuss it face- to-face instead of online?’

“You must not be afraid to stand up for yourself,” she adds. “Address these problems right away because it’s important to build and maintain conducive working relationships with your bosses and colleagues. How can you work together if one of you feels victimised or threatened?”

Talk to a Supervisor
If your colleague insists there is nothing wrong with his e-mails, request a chat with your supervisor and ask your HR manager to sit in on the meeting. Show them printouts of the e-mail – be sure to save the soft copies in a separate folder in your inbox. Explain how the bullying has affected you, and discuss what can be done to stop the harassment.

Bring it up with HR
If the bully is your boss and he is not open to discussing the matter with you, bring it up to your HR manager who can help mediate – you have a right to work in an environment that is non-hostile and non-threatening. Write a formal letter of complaint about what’s been happening, and give it to your HR manager in person along with copies of the e-mails.

Jasveer says that no one should have to quit their job because they are being bullied. “Bullies are people who have been or are being treated badly themselves, so they think it’s acceptable to act in the same way to others. Don’t allow yourself to be a target of their insecurities.”

*Names have been changed

This article was originally published in Simply Her September 2013.