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When Jessie* arrived at the office in the morning, she booted up her computer as

usual. What was unusual was the anxiety that gripped the financial analyst as she
opened her e-mail and saw his name pop up.
Every day for the past two months, she had received at least one e-mail from Tony*,
her supervisor. They were unkind, and at times cruel, mail on everything from her lack
of professionalism in dealing with clients to what time she came into the office.
At first, the messages focused on her work performance, but they quickly turned
personal – and nasty. One suggested that she go for speech training because she
“sounded like a kid” on the phone. That message was copied to the head of their
department.
She erased that morning’s e-mail from him without opening it, as she had done for the
past week. The worst part? Jessie’s workstation was next to Tony’s. “It was hell. I
would have to sit there with a straight face as I read what he sent, sometimes knowing
he was watching me. For weeks, none of my colleagues knew what I was going
through until I told them.
They just thought we had stopped talking,” says Jessie, who was at the tail-end of a
two-year contract with the Singapore office of a US-based financial research firm.
WOMEN VICTIMS
Jessie’s ordeal of being harassed through electronic means – in her case, e-mails but
for others through text messages, tweets or Facebook – is what a rising number of
office workers here are going through, experts say.
While the recent spotlight on cyberbullying has focused on students and younger
persons, the harassment of co-workers “has become more prevalent as the Internet
continues to be an essential part of daily business operations”, says the managing
director of a human resource consultancy. “Women seem to be the likely victims as
they are perceived to be the weaker sex who might be susceptible to such threats,”
she adds.
Recently, for instance, celebrity blogger Wendy Cheng, aka Xiaxue, faced a barrage
of sexist insults – like “underage prostitute” and “Geylang hooker” – after photos of her
and two other bloggers with the People’s Action Party logo painted on their faces were
posted online. But unlike most victims, she hit back by posting pictures of her
tormentors on her site and in turn insulted them for their lack of civility and unflattering
looks.
In response to an increase in such incidents, the Government launched a review of
Singapore’s cyberbullying laws in April 2012. Observers say current laws that deal
with such cases under the Miscellaneous Offences Act are far from adequate.
For Jessie, an economics graduate, her ordeal began about a year after she started
working at the company in a new team headed by Tony.
“From the start, the way he treated me seemed like harassment. He would call me his
‘girl’ in front of clients, for example. That was demeaning. I just tried to ignore it,” she
recalls.
A colleague describes Jessie as a cheerful co-worker who was always willing to take
time out of her own schedule to help others. “She was the enthusiastic one who
remembered birthdays and would be very patient when dealing with colleagues.”
But Jessie’s patience finally ran out and she confronted Tony in private about his
behaviour. He responded by giving her the silent treatment, ignoring her even when
she addressed him during meetings with other colleagues present. A week after the
confrontation, the nasty e-mails started.
PERSONAL HELL
Most of Tony’s e-mail assaults were personal: “He even accused me of coming in late
to work because I had found a new boyfriend.” While she admits to being late
occasionally, she says it had nothing to do with her boyfriend.
Jessie’s efforts to keep her plight private took its toll. She endured what experts say
are the classic symptoms of cyberbullying victims – depression, a phobia of e-mails
and text messages, and dwindling motivation.
Things hit a new low a week later when, after ignoring and deleting Tony’s e-mails,
she received a two-word SMS from him one evening during a family dinner at home:
“F**k you.” She deleted it immediately and spent the rest of the night in tears.
Embarrassed by the incident, she told her closest friend at work about the text
message. “At first, she tried to put on a brave front. But after a while, it was clear to
everyone she had changed. The smiles were gone and on many days, she was red-
eyed, probably from crying,” says the friend.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Wang says that the impact of cyber harassment on a victim
can be more sinister. “In physical bullying, there is a face-to-face confrontation, but an
e-mail or SMS can reach you even when you are in the safety of your own home, so it
crosses boundaries,” he says.
After much urging by concerned colleagues, Jessie eventually informed her senior
managers about Tony’s e-mails. To her surprise, they told her they were aware of his
behaviour. Jessie never asked, but she believes they knew about it from observing his
behaviour, being copied on some e-mails and perhaps complaints by others.
Rather than take action, they just reassured her that she was doing a good job and
told her to “hang in there”. “I could only conclude that he was important to the
company’s bottom line, whereas I was just a contract employee,” she says.
Jessie’s next thought was to approach the HR department, but she had deleted all the
offending messages and had no physical evidence to back up her case. Going to the
police or the Ministry of Manpower wasn’t an option; it meant escalating the situation
to a level that she was not emotionally equipped to handle.
The executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware),
says most victims don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, so they don’t take any
action against their tormentors. “They don’t want the bully to be punished. They just
want him or her to stop so that they can continue working the way they used to,” she
says.
CHANGES EXPECTED
Some are pinning their hopes on the Government’s review of cyberbullying laws to
improve the situation. Ideally, they say, such laws should require companies to have
HR policies and procedures to deal with harassment. Government agencies can then
take companies to task for failing to comply.
But any change in regulations will come too late for Jessie. Despite being offered a
permanent position and having the continued support of her senior bosses, she
decided days after speaking to Her World to not renew her contract when it expired at
the end of May.
“I worry all the time about what (Tony) is going to say next about me,” she admits. “As
long as he’s still in the company and there’s a chance that I have to deal with him, I
would rather quit. I don’t want to have a nervous breakdown.”
*Not their real names
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE…
A victim

 Keep all e-mails, text messages or screen captures of websites as proof if you
want to make a report to your supervisors or HR manager.
 Don’t add fuel to the fire by responding directly to the harassment. It will not
deter the bully. Instead, seek help in getting the person to stop.
 You should report harassment cases to your supervisor or HR department,
union or the Ministry of Manpower.
 You can also approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices
(Tafep), whose main role is to promote responsible employment practices.
 Call 6838-0969 or e-mail query@fairemployment.sg.
 If the harassment is serious, such as threats of physical harm, you should
consider making a police report or obtain a restraining order from the Court.
 Women who are being sexually harassed at their workplace can call Aware’s
helpline at 1800-774-5935 (Mon to Fri, 3pm to 9.30pm).

An employer

 Make sure you have up-to-date, effective IT policies that spell out the
consequences for non-compliance.
 Send HR managers to workshops held by organisations such as Tafep
(www.fairemployment.sg) and Aware (tel: 6779-7137, www.aware.org.sg) for
training in handling harassment cases.
This story was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Her World.