One in four workers in Japan experienced power harassment over the past three years, according to a recent survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The poll of 4,580 companies with 30 or more employees, conducted between July and September of 2012, also found that 45.2 percent of the surveyed companies saw the issue of power harassment raised by employees during the past three years, and 32 percent recognized power harassment cases within their companies.

Those startlingly high figures reveal a picture of the Japanese workplace as an often-oppressive place. This new survey perhaps finally makes clear what every worker in Japan already knows, that power harassment is a common part of working life.

The ministry established an official definition of power harassment in January 2012 and made recommendations for companies. Late as it was, that was an important step forward. Long filled with markers of unequal status and strict channels of communication, Japanese workplaces need more than definitions and guidelines. They need action.

That may not be easy. The line between authority to make decisions within a respectful hierarchy and behavior that causes workers emotional distress needs to be drawn carefully.

Power harassment is a clearly defined set of behaviors that could involve physical assault, invasion of privacy, inconsequential or excessive work demands, cutting off of all relationships or intimidation and mental abuse.

Most workplaces cause a certain degree of emotional distress, but certain behaviors by superiors fail to contribute to the profit, production or positive atmosphere — they just cause harm. All companies should recognize those damaging, unproductive behaviors and strive to eliminate them.

All Japanese companies need to establish an explicit policy on power harassment, institute rules and procedures for handling cases, offer training in the issue and take action on cases that do occur. That takes an investment of resources, but it is one that will pay off in both the short run, when cases arise, and in the long run, by creating a positive working environment.

Many workers refrain from taking action because they worry it could affect their evaluations or employment status. Those people in power who harass others do so imagining that they are immune from consequences or that it is the only way to get things done. However, these beliefs, while perhaps tolerated in the past, are wrong and companies should disavow them.

The sooner companies can remove power harassment from their corporate culture and establish a positive, motivating atmosphere, the better off they will be now and for the future.

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