Back
Image Alt

The Singapore Law Gazette

Workplace Bullying and Harassment – Towards Zero Tolerance

Introduction

On 9 October 2020, 21 of Singapore’s law firms endorsed the Law Society of Singapore’s Law Firm Pledge on Preventing Bullying and Harassment in Singapore’s Legal Profession, in a virtual signing ceremony. This was the first step towards demonstrating a strong commitment to combatting these issues in the profession.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Even though change may take some time, indubitably it will happen.

Those with less power in society, such as women, and younger lawyers, are likely to experience bullying at higher rates. To this end, the Young Lawyers’ Committee and the Women in Practice Committee are developing a Sample Workplace Harassment Prevention Policy for Law Firms that will be rolled out in 2022. It is envisaged that in this process, there is a role for truth, accountability and justice.

This is a powerful perspective from an insider, a young female lawyer, as told to the Women in Practice Committee. By sharing such compelling experiences, we can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. Workplace bullying will have a profound impact on our lives and it is something that needs to be addressed urgently.

A Personal Account

Prior to me joining, this small law firm was looking at expanding and it made a lot of promises in order to convince me to join. Just three weeks after joining, I already had second thoughts as I was experiencing vague discomfort at work. I should have trusted my gut instinct which told me that something was not quite right.

My boss’s true colours were soon revealed. He claimed that I had a poor work performance, and frequently intimidated me. He told me that he needed to keep a close watch over everything I did otherwise I would just be a disgrace to the firm. He was erratic, aggressive and temperamental and he would shout at me even in the presence of others. These episodes took place over video-conferencing, in person and/or over telephone calls. He would frequently compare me to a male colleague that was junior to me and he told me that I should humble myself to learn from this other colleague because he had a far superior intellect and work quality. The former boss constantly engaged in “gaslighting” me that the industry thought poorly of me and that my other colleagues were reluctant to work with me. He told me that my achievements in the past were not exactly through my own efforts but through the various support of certain male superiors and subordinates.

Upon reflection, it appears that the root cause of this bullying stemmed from jealousy and gender bias that bordered on misogyny. It seemed to me that my former boss had a vested interest in driving me out of the legal profession by creating in me a feeling of my uselessness. By persistently disparaging me, it was also a way for my former boss to assert control over me.

Mental Health

It usually takes people a while to realise that they are being bullied. Often, there is some stigma and shame associated with it. Initially, I brushed it off as constructive criticism about my work that was justified. However, I started to question this narrative of “tough love” and mentorship. He was also dismissive of other women, especially in relation to their technical abilities. No matter how competent I was, he had certain preconceived notions about women. The former boss spoke the vernacular of toxic masculinity, even though he would purport to be supportive of gender diversity.

Because my self-confidence plummeted, this had a concomitant impact on my work performance. I spent endless hours replaying incidents in my head and ruminating over every micro-aggression.

This marked the beginning of an endless free fall through despair. I felt demoralised and crippled and my mental health certainly suffered. I felt like an imposter who did not deserve to be in the legal profession. Surely others in my position would have contemplated leaving practice? Thankfully I had the fortitude and the support to know that there is light at the end of this tunnel.

Avenues for Recourse

“Not all situations are appropriate for truthseeking, nor are all people interested in the pursuit.” Annie Duke, from her book Thinking in Bets

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to workplace bullying. For me, the catharsis came when I told a senior former colleague about what had transpired. He told me that I was to be believed and that with my abilities he was certain that I could find another law firm easily. Indeed, by that time, a few other law firms had reached out to me and there was a way out from this phantasmagoria. This restored my sense of safety and self-worth that had been shattered for months.

I thought of reporting this but the fear of reprisal has stopped me. When I resigned, the former boss told me that if I were to tell anyone about what had happened, he would ensure that my career is destroyed. Indeed, others have advised me that my former boss is an extremely vindictive person and that I should be cautious in the process of exiting the firm lest he sabotages my next role.

In fact, others have also advised me that legal recourse may not be worth my while. I was in a small law firm that had no internal grievance mechanism whatsoever. One option would be to commence an action for wrongful dismissal whereby I would have to bear the evidential burden of showing that the behaviour was so unreasonable that I had no option but to walk out. I felt that it was pointless having to go through this legal rigmarole that will take a further toll on my state of my mind. There was also the option of filing a Law Society complaint on the basis of conduct unbefitting of a solicitor. Whatever it was, I no longer wanted to have any further dealings with the perpetrator. To me there was little benefit in going through any complaint process, whether formal or informal.

My main priority now is to move on with my life and to not reify these memories by reliving them. I accept that what works for me may not work for other victims. I have started taking small steps to rebuild my life and to embark on a healing process. These days, I am used to getting a full eight hours of sleep and I have gotten my life back on track. To me, there is just no point luxuriating in victimhood. No, the truth will not set me free. Yes, time heals all wounds.

Commentary

The cost to the legal profession cannot be underestimated because workplace bullying will lead to a drain in talent. Bystanders and witnesses to bullying can also be affected, and the organisation in question may suffer reputational damage and low morale if bullying is left unchecked. High attrition rates can lead to a vicious cycle where the organisation faces difficulty recruiting which in itself leads to employee burnout. Not to mention that employee dissatisfaction surely will result in loss of productivity. There are financial costs to businesses as well such as the cost of sick leave, legal costs and human resource costs.

Recently, there have been very public fallouts involving toxic workplaces that have been reported in the media. Abuse of power can happen anywhere, even with remote working. Workplace culture is very critical when it comes to preventing bullying in the first place. Legislation and policies alone are insufficient to rid the legal industry of this scourge and the only defence against workplace bullying is an attitudinal shift. In the companies where there is low tolerance bullying, the culture is to treat each other with dignity and respect. However, legislation and policies can be a first step towards the ingraining and ratcheting of norms that serve to regulate behaviour ex ante.

Women in Practice Committee
The Law Society of Singapore

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc interdum nulla vel eleifend dignissim. Praesent rutrum vulputate neque sed sagittis. Morbi fermentum, mi eget varius pretium, tellus justo fermentum arcu, sed dictum orci nibh id magna. Etiam ac aliquam lacus. Proin eu ornare nisi. Sed bibendum aliquet ex consectetur tempor. Suspendisse tellus magna, tincidunt at tristique ac, semper sed odio. Sed ornare lacinia arcu eu cursus. Integer hendrerit, leo non tincidunt dictum, nisl neque finibus nisi, non volutpat dolor enim dictum odio. Nullam et turpis eu risus euismod finibus sed sit amet sem. Nullam nisi elit, sodales vel ultrices eu, laoreet nec justo.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc interdum nulla vel eleifend dignissim. Praesent rutrum vulputate neque sed sagittis. Morbi fermentum, mi eget varius pretium, tellus justo fermentum arcu, sed dictum orci nibh id magna. Etiam ac aliquam lacus. Proin eu ornare nisi. Sed bibendum aliquet ex consectetur tempor. Suspendisse tellus magna, tincidunt at tristique ac, semper sed odio. Sed ornare lacinia arcu eu cursus. Integer hendrerit, leo non tincidunt dictum, nisl neque finibus nisi, non volutpat dolor enim dictum odio. Nullam et turpis eu risus euismod finibus sed sit amet sem. Nullam nisi elit, sodales vel ultrices eu, laoreet nec justo.