How-tos

Dealing with the 'boss from hell'? You could be getting 'power harassed'

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

In recent years, it has become something of a trend in Japan to combine the suffix “hara,” the katakana abbreviation of the English word “harassment,” with various words to describe newly recognized types of harassment. Thus the term “matahara” (the “mata” coming from “maternity”) refers to the harassment of pregnant women. “Aruhara” is the pressure to drink alcohol, and “patahara” is the harassment of men who choose to take paternity leave.

Pawahara,” or “power harassment,” is another such coinage, though it’s a little older, dating back to around 2003. “Power harassment” isn’t a term in English (except as a loanword from Japanese), and it refers to what English-speakers might call bullying or abuse of authority. It’s used for the boss who screams at his staff and makes unreasonable work demands, or the company that assigns someone meaningless work as a punishment for perceived insubordination.

Power harassment has been getting a lot of attention in Japan recently due to a confluence of three factors, the first being changing mores. Simply put, younger people are no longer willing to put up with workplace behaviors that were tolerated by previous generations. As one of my 50-something Japanese clients puts it, “Younger people today may complain about how their bosses treat them, but when I was their age my boss would throw his ashtray at me.”

The second factor is that a stagnant economy puts pressure on managers who in turn take it out on their employees. Low mobility in the Japanese labor market means that people feel that they have to stay put even when they are receiving such poor treatment. The final factor is that because it’s difficult to fire people in Japan, some companies intentionally treat employees badly in the hopes they will quit.

Underscoring the pervasiveness of power harassment in the Japanese workplace, a recent survey by job-search site En Japan found that 82 percent of men and women over the age of 35 said that they had experienced power harassment, including 66 percent in the form of psychological attacks such as insults, threats and being yelled at in public, and 45 percent who faced excessive work demands.

On the other hand, what exactly constitutes power harassment is not always clear. One problem I see is that some people use power harassment as a label for any treatment from their superiors that they don’t like. For example, at one Japanese company I’m familiar with, an employee was complaining bitterly about power harassment from her boss. Others in the company then shared with me that she was a poor performer and her boss had been giving her negative feedback in order to try to help her improve.

Unprofessional behavior

The fact that Japan’s official definition of power harassment is rather broad fuels this difficulty. According to the labor ministry, power harassment is when “someone using their power from position or relationships goes beyond the appropriate sphere of their job duties and creates mental or physical distress for someone in the same workplace, thus worsening the work environment.” Six types of power harassment are defined by the ministry, let’s look at each one:

Physical attacks: This includes assaults and other acts of violence. For example, someone punching, poking or hitting you.

Emotional attacks: This includes threats, character assassination, insults and cruelty. For example, being yelled at in front of colleagues, repeatedly scolded at length or denounced in an email sent to co-workers.

Isolation from human relationships: This includes being ignored, segregated from others or not invited to work-related events. This type of treatment is in a sense a modern version of murahachibu (expulsion from the village), a historical and extreme form of punishment in Japan.

Excessive demands: Not simply a lot of work, but rather work contents or volume that are obviously not possible for a single employee to do. This could include dumping a lot of work on a new hire who can’t be expected to know how to do it yet.

Demeaning demands: This refers to being assigned work that’s unrelated to your level of experience, such as asking a driver to cut the grass or asking an office worker to work in the warehouse.

Intrusion into the employee’s personal life: This can include bad-mouthing someone’s spouse, pestering an employee about when they will get married or asking overly personal questions such as who the employee is going on vacation with.

Tackling the problem

If any of those descriptions feel like something you are experiencing at your workplace, there are several things that you can potentially do about it.

Many Japanese employees who experience power harassment either grin and bear it while waiting for either themselves or their boss to get transferred to another position in the periodic rotation cycle, or simply quit and find another job. Those are certainly two options, but here are some additional ideas to consider.

One is to make it clear to the person who is harassing you that you find their behavior to be unacceptable. For example, if they are yelling at you, say in a calm voice “I don’t think yelling is appropriate.” If you are given impossible or demeaning work to do, refuse to do it and explain why. In some cases, if you show you are someone who refuses to be pushed around, the harassment will stop. But in some cases, it will get worse, so be prepared for that possibility if you try this approach.

Another thing that you can do is to sit down with the harasser and try to find out what it is you are doing that is provoking the behavior. This is useful if it seems that only you are on the receiving end of this treatment, rather than a situation in which the boss treats everyone terribly. Ask what you can do to improve your work and see if you can get some ideas that will help you change the dynamic. In some cases, power harassers yell because they are irritated with the employee but they don’t have the skills to give negative feedback effectively, so trying to draw it out can be helpful. Again, this might not work and may even irritate the harasser, but it can be worth trying if you can do it with sincerity.

An additional option is to talk to someone in your firm’s human resource department. They may be able to suggest something that you can do or take actions to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, human resource departments in Japan vary widely as to their willingness and ability to deal with difficult issues like these that would be considered to be within their natural purview in Western countries, so this may or may not be an effective option for you. But it’s worth giving it a try.

With that being said, if the murahachibu type of power harassment is the one that sounds most like your situation and it’s not just your boss but others in your office who are giving you the cold shoulder, my experience is that it’s virtually impossible to repair relationships once they have deteriorated to that point, and your best option could be to find a new place to work as quickly as possible.

And, of course, there are always legal remedies for situations that are truly terrible. Talking to a good labor attorney can help you determine whether your situation rises to the level of a problem in which legal recourse is possible and advisable.

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at: @JapanIntercult.

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