When Jessie* arrived at the office in the morning, she booted up her computer as usual. What was unusual was the anxiety that gripped the financial analyst as she opened her e-mail and saw his name pop up.
Every day for the past two months, she had received at least one e-mail from Tony*, her supervisor. They were unkind, and at times cruel, mail on everything from her lack of professionalism in dealing with clients to what time she came into the office.
At first, the messages focused on her work performance, but they quickly turned personal – and nasty. One suggested that she go for speech training because she “sounded like a kid” on the phone. That message was copied to the head of their department.
She erased that morning’s e-mail from him without opening it, as she had done for the past week. The worst part? Jessie’s workstation was next to Tony’s. “It was hell. I would have to sit there with a straight face as I read what he sent, sometimes knowing he was watching me. For weeks, none of my colleagues knew what I was going through until I told them.
They just thought we had stopped talking,” says Jessie, who was at the tail-end of a two-year contract with the Singapore office of a US-based financial research firm.
Jessie’s ordeal of being harassed through electronic means – in her case, e-mails but for others through text messages, tweets or Facebook – is what a rising number of office workers here are going through, experts say.
While the recent spotlight on cyberbullying has focused on students and younger persons, the harassment of co-workers “has become more prevalent as the Internet continues to be an essential part of daily business operations”, says the managing director of a human resource consultancy. “Women seem to be the likely victims as they are perceived to be the weaker sex who might be susceptible to such threats,” she adds.
Recently, for instance, celebrity blogger Wendy Cheng, aka Xiaxue, faced a barrage of sexist insults – like “underage prostitute” and “Geylang hooker” – after photos of her and two other bloggers with the People’s Action Party logo painted on their faces were posted online. But unlike most victims, she hit back by posting pictures of her tormentors on her site and in turn insulted them for their lack of civility and unflattering looks.
In response to an increase in such incidents, the Government launched a review of Singapore’s cyberbullying laws in April 2012. Observers say current laws that deal with such cases under the Miscellaneous Offences Act are far from adequate.
For Jessie, an economics graduate, her ordeal began about a year after she started working at the company in a new team headed by Tony.
“From the start, the way he treated me seemed like harassment. He would call me his ‘girl’ in front of clients, for example. That was demeaning. I just tried to ignore it,” she recalls.
A colleague describes Jessie as a cheerful co-worker who was always willing to take time out of her own schedule to help others. “She was the enthusiastic one who remembered birthdays and would be very patient when dealing with colleagues.”
But Jessie’s patience finally ran out and she confronted Tony in private about his behaviour. He responded by giving her the silent treatment, ignoring her even when she addressed him during meetings with other colleagues present. A week after the confrontation, the nasty e-mails started.
Most of Tony’s e-mail assaults were personal: “He even accused me of coming in late to work because I had found a new boyfriend.” While she admits to being late occasionally, she says it had nothing to do with her boyfriend.
Jessie’s efforts to keep her plight private took its toll. She endured what experts say are the classic symptoms of cyberbullying victims – depression, a phobia of e-mails and text messages, and dwindling motivation.
Things hit a new low a week later when, after ignoring and deleting Tony’s e-mails, she received a two-word SMS from him one evening during a family dinner at home: “F**k you.” She deleted it immediately and spent the rest of the night in tears.
Embarrassed by the incident, she told her closest friend at work about the text message. “At first, she tried to put on a brave front. But after a while, it was clear to everyone she had changed. The smiles were gone and on many days, she was red-eyed, probably from crying,” says the friend.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Wang says that the impact of cyber harassment on a victim can be more sinister. “In physical bullying, there is a face-to-face confrontation, but an e-mail or SMS can reach you even when you are in the safety of your own home, so it crosses boundaries,” he says.
After much urging by concerned colleagues, Jessie eventually informed her senior managers about Tony’s e-mails. To her surprise, they told her they were aware of his behaviour. Jessie never asked, but she believes they knew about it from observing his behaviour, being copied on some e-mails and perhaps complaints by others.
Rather than take action, they just reassured her that she was doing a good job and told her to “hang in there”. “I could only conclude that he was important to the company’s bottom line, whereas I was just a contract employee,” she says.
Jessie’s next thought was to approach the HR department, but she had deleted all the offending messages and had no physical evidence to back up her case. Going to the police or the Ministry of Manpower wasn’t an option; it meant escalating the situation to a level that she was not emotionally equipped to handle.
The executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), says most victims don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, so they don’t take any action against their tormentors. “They don’t want the bully to be punished. They just want him or her to stop so that they can continue working the way they used to,” she says.
Some are pinning their hopes on the Government’s review of cyberbullying laws to improve the situation. Ideally, they say, such laws should require companies to have HR policies and procedures to deal with harassment. Government agencies can then take companies to task for failing to comply.
But any change in regulations will come too late for Jessie. Despite being offered a permanent position and having the continued support of her senior bosses, she decided days after speaking to Her World to not renew her contract when it expired at the end of May.
“I worry all the time about what (Tony) is going to say next about me,” she admits. “As long as he’s still in the company and there’s a chance that I have to deal with him, I would rather quit. I don’t want to have a nervous breakdown.”
*Not their real names
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE…
- Keep all e-mails, text messages or screen captures of websites as proof if you want to make a report to your supervisors or HR manager.
- Don’t add fuel to the fire by responding directly to the harassment. It will not deter the bully. Instead, seek help in getting the person to stop.
- You should report harassment cases to your supervisor or HR department, union or the Ministry of Manpower.
- You can also approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), whose main role is to promote responsible employment practices.
- Call 6838-0969 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If the harassment is serious, such as threats of physical harm, you should consider making a police report or obtain a restraining order from the Court.
- Women who are being sexually harassed at their workplace can call Aware’s helpline at 1800-774-5935 (Mon to Fri, 3pm to 9.30pm).
- Make sure you have up-to-date, effective IT policies that spell out the consequences for non-compliance.
- Send HR managers to workshops held by organisations such as Tafep (www.fairemployment.sg) and Aware (tel: 6779-7137, www.aware.org.sg) for training in handling harassment cases.
This story was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Her World.