Reflecting the common Korean expression “My monthly paycheck includes the cost of excessive criticism and emotional labor,” widespread verbal and emotional bullying in the workplace has risen as a social issue in the wake of revelations of chilling office harassment by chief of WeDisk Yang Jin-ho in 2018.
In late 2018, the Labor Standards Act, which legally defines and bans office bullying, was amended in response to growing calls for regulations to stop widespread misbehavior at work and punish businesses that turn a blind eye to bullying.
Experts attribute the change in atmosphere that has younger-generation employees increasingly choosing to stand up to office bullying and address issues head-on to the massive candlelight protests in late 2016 that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye.
Her case would be categorized as office bullying according to the guidelines for office bullying issued by the Ministry of Employment and Labor last month. The guidelines were created to help distinguish the fine line between mistreatment and intensive work.
The ministry’s guidelines give a few examples of workplace bullying.
For instance, appointing an employee, who returns from parental leave, to a lower rank position and pressuring fellow teammates to alienate the person while using offensive language is recognized as office bullying, according to the guideline.
Repeatedly forcing junior staff to schedule after-hours drinks and spend part of their bonus to treat seniors, and making them write an official apology when they refuse to do so is another case of harassment.
According to the revised Labor Standards Act, companies with more than 10 employees are required to implement measures to prevent and deal with workplace harassment by July 16 and report them to the Labor Ministry. Companies that do not comply will be fined up to 5 million won ($4,400).
Critics, however, have called into question the effectiveness of the amendment that does not specify punishments. Individual companies have to decide punishments for those found guilty of workplace bullying.
“There are two loopholes in the revision. One is the absence of legal punishment for bullying by the owner, and the other is that it does not guarantee anonymity,” said Oh.
The revision defines and bans workplace harassment, and states that companies that dismiss or unfairly reassign a victim for reporting bullying would face up to three years behind bars or 30 million won in penalties. There is no provision for punishing the perpetrator.
Addressing the complaints, Rep. Han Jeoung-ae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea proposed a partially revised act last month that would punish perpetrators with up to two years of jail time and 20 million won.
“After Yang Jin-ho’s case broke, I received many complaints asking for legal ways to punish perpetrators of office harassment in the office,” Han said.
Some managerial level workers express concerns and confusion about the amount of workload and personal conversations deemed acceptable.
“I don’t know what to talk about with my team anymore besides the weather, which is not going to help me understand them better. In my defense, it’s only natural for me to want to keep close the workers who I am comfortable assigning work to and who I can share a personal bond with,” said Park, a team manager at a conglomerate.
With changing workplace dynamics, there is expected to be greater emphasis on “soft skills.”
“It was difficult to define the extent of office bullying. Times have changed, so senior employees have to be more sensitive about language use and treatment of junior workers. Overall, soft skills are going to become an ever more important trait in the office,” said a Labor Ministry official who worked on the guidelines.
By Kim Bo-gyung (email@example.com)