A labor ministry panel has at last addressed one of the biggest problems in the Japanese workplace — power harassment. The ministry’s definitions and proposals were contained in a report aimed at preventing and resolving the problem. Considering that the number of consultations about power harassment totaled a shocking 39,405 in fiscal 2010, the labor ministry’s belated response is welcome.

For the first time, the labor ministry report defined power harassment, specifying it as an abuse of authority by higher ranking employees who behave in a manner that causes subordinates physical pain or emotional distress.

Actions now officially considered power harassment include violence and physical offenses, mental abuse such as threats and verbal assaults, segregation, treating workers coldly, demanding the impossible and forcing workers to engage in activities beyond the scope of their duties. Unfortunately, for many employees those actions may sound like a typical day at the office. Defining and categorizing the problem is likely to prove easier than actually changing such behavior.

Part of the difficulty in changing the mind-set behind power harassment involves cultural attitudes. The vertical nature of the vast majority of Japanese workplaces, where workers generally maintain a submissive attitude to superiors, fuels the phenomenon of power harassment. The intense group work ethic also puts excessive pressure on some individuals, causing them stress that goes beyond the requirements of completing work tasks. However, power harassment is not just a cultural issue; it is now also a legal one.

Whether a certain action is in fact harassment can be hard to determine. Behavior that one person merely regards as an authoritarian manner could be interpreted as a personal attack by another. The new definition of power harassment, though, clearly distinguishes it from a tough boss demanding hard work. The ministry’s guidelines specify particular actions that go beyond getting the work done. Power harassment entails hostile, emotionally destructive actions that worsen the working environment and focus harmful pressure on individuals.

Companies need to establish clear guidelines, procedures and committees to prevent and handle this problem. Workers need to know that a place exists in the organization where they can seek assistance and be made aware of the guidelines for handling such issues. Bosses need to be more aware of their actions and the effect they have on their subordinates. Workers who suffer or witness power harassment need to report it.

Companies should understand that power harassment is bad for productivity. It inhibits the efficient achievement of company goals, disrupts morale and results in losses in valuable human resources. Power harassment is also an infringement of human rights and a form of discrimination as serious as any based on race, gender, age or nationality. It is regrettable that the labor ministry waited so long to address this workplace problem. Its recommendations should be put into practice as soon as possible.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.