MALAYSIA - Mention the word "bully" and many would relate it to school bullies, with mean kids shoving others at the playground.
Just when you think you are safe from bullying by venturing out into the working world, presuming that surely everyone is mature and will not resort to childish bullying tactics to get their way, you discover that the workplace is no different and it seems like school all over again with a whole new set of nightmares.
Victims of workplace bullying are usually emotionally abused; there are no scars or bruises but the pain they suffer goes deeper.
Here are accounts from some victims.
Newcomers are common targets as they are new to the company and have yet to form relationships with others; hence they are seen as easier to bully because they have no one to support them.
Sometimes, newcomers are also seen as threats, especially in a competitive working environment.
Megan is a 19-year-old sales assistant who is currently being bullied by her 25-year-old co-worker.
"I only started this job about three months ago. As soon as I started she thought I was taking all her shifts and (she was) complaining all the time," she says.
While Megan was learning the ropes, this co-worker became progressively nastier to her.
"She would talk to other colleagues about me behind my back, I would walk in the room and they would stop talking, then they would whisper and giggle and look at me and just subtly be really mean.
"She has also been trying to sabotage me and another colleague by giving me incorrect information, and telling me to lie to customers. She even hid a signed contract from one colleague just to get him in trouble.
"There was one incident where she told the manager while I was standing there talking to him that I shouldn't be getting any shifts because I don't know what I am doing.
"I have confronted management with it and I believe they have indirectly dealt with it but have taken no real action.
"It affects me because I feel really nervous coming to work and I don't like walking into the same room as her. It really upsets me and I have cried at work before.
There was a day when I just couldn't come in to work because I didn't want to have to deal with it anymore. I have wanted to leave my job but it is just one person and I try not to let it get to me."
Min, in her 20s, also experienced bullying some years ago while working at her first job.
"On my first day I felt discriminated against. I felt unwelcome. During the first week I even had to go lunch by myself.
"I would get a very bad response and support from the Technical and Software Department whenever I needed help.
"I later found out that everyone in the company hated my senior who likes to lick the boots of the company general manager and never actually does his work.
"All he does is talk to the GM the whole day and come out with all sorts of recommendations and command others to do it. Because of that, there's (a lot of) office politics going on with this senior and other departments.
"I later confronted the Technical and Software colleagues and asked why they treated me that way. They told me they thought I was recommended by my senior and presumed that I'm his ally.
"I said it was very unfair that they judged me without asking or verifying. In the end, I became close to them and turned against my senior."
It is not just bright-eyed fresh grads who are prone to bullying; on some occasions, even those nearing retirement are targeted.
Lynn could not believe that someone like her, in her 50s, could be a target for bullying.
"I just rejoined the company; I had left many years ago to care for my family, among other reasons. The person who is bullying me is in her 40s. She is always trying to put me down. She tried to separate me from others by telling them I'm a loner," she says.
"Bullies are insecure. She saw me as a threat and told others that I was incompetent. It did not help that she is popular among colleagues; some believed her."
Lynn was not easily affected by the bullying, given her years of working experience.
"As an older person, I know where I stand. I just let others know. I also found out that she is mean to others, not just me. My colleagues are now more careful in dealing with her," she said.
Aside from women, men can also be victims of bullying at the workplace.
Alex was 23 when he joined his company and somehow became the target of a senior colleague.
"She would tell blatant lies about me in front of the boss. I tried to defend myself but as she was second in command, naturally he believed her more than me.
"She would try to sabotage my projects, make life difficult for me at work and also turn my colleagues against me," he said.
It did not help that one of his superiors was sexually harassing him. He quit soon after.
(The names of the victims above have been changed. Aside from Megan, all the examples cited above are Malaysians.)
As the above examples show, targets of bullies can exist at any stage of working life. "Firstly, bullies always target people they think they can control," said psychologist Karen Goonting,
She added that an employee could also become a target if he/she:
Has at least one vulnerability that can be exploited;
Is different from others;
Is conscientious, a quiet achiever, good at his/her job, is agreeable and well-liked;
Shows independence of thought or deed;
Gets more attention from others than the bully does;
Has inappropriate social skills and has annoyed the bully;
Is unassertive and prefers to avoid conflict;
Has a dispute with the bully; and
Is just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She added that sometimes, a victim can be chosen because the bully's previous target leaves the organisation.
"If there is no likelihood that you will be physically assaulted, the quickest way is to inform the bully personally, assertively and respectfully that you will not be bullied," Goonting said.
"Be prepared with concrete examples of the bullying ... the bully may feign ignorance or, as often happens in Malaysia, say it was all a joke and you are over-sensitive."
Bullies pick targets they think they can control, so "the objective here is to show the bully that you will not allow him or her to control you."