Civil Society

Workplace bullies could now go to jail in South Korea

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. Capitalizing on spying tools believed to have been developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, hackers staged a cyber assault with a self-spreading malware that has infected tens of thousands of computers in nearly 100 countries. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration - RC171E8E71D0

Curbing toxic office cultures. Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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South Korea is introducing new laws to stamp out workplace bullying – and persistent offenders could face hefty fines or even time in prison.


The ban doesn’t just relate to direct physical or verbal abuse. It includes behaviour like gossiping about colleagues, ignoring them, or assigning more work than they can reasonably handle.

It also outlaws forcing employees to drink, smoke or attend company functions.

Counter culture

Workplace harassment is widespread in South Korea, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commission, cited in The Korea Herald. Almost two thirds of employees say they have experienced it at some point in their working life, with around 12% enduring bullying on a daily basis.


Few people report such behaviour, due in part to the lack of a legal framework to protect workers and the existence of many powerful family-run conglomerates in the country.

Research also suggests cultural attitudes could influence how people see workplace bullying, and many employers don’t acknowledge that a problem exists.


But it’s sometimes difficult for bullies to hide in the social media age and unacceptable behaviour is increasingly gaining global media attention.

Recent examples include a disgruntled drive-through customer who returned his order by throwing it in a restaurant worker’s face. And the now infamous Korean Air incident, in which a woman hurled abuse at flight attendants who served her nuts in a packet instead of a bowl.

The new rules aim to eliminate “gapjil” –the country’s term for workplace bullying. Offenders face a prison sentence of up to three years or a maximum fine of $25,000.

Victims of this kind of abuse can now apply for compensation. Once an incident has been brought to light, employers are banned from dismissing or taking punitive action against the person who reported it.

Beating the bullies

As well as making life at work miserable for victims, bullying can result in low morale and stress, and lead to conditions like anxiety or depression.

Harassment is also costly for companies – The Korea Herald cites South Korean government estimates of almost $4 billion a year, including costs relating to staff morale, lost productivity, medical and insurance outlay.

Laws to tackle the issue are already in place in many countries. Sweden was the first to outlaw workplace bullying in 1993, and legislation has since spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world, including Canada and Australia.

But there are a few notable exceptions, including the US. Although laws exists to counter discrimination, the country has no federal legislation to tackle abusive workplace conduct.

Image: Statista

As the above chart shows, verbal abuse and threats are the most common form of bullying in US workplaces, with little difference between the numbers of male and female victims experiencing it.

A 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey shows harassment affects almost 60% of American workers and there’s a large gender divide among those responsible.

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Men account for 70% of workplace bullies in the US, and target female over male victims by almost two to one. More than two thirds of the victims of female bullies are women.

In more than 70% of cases, employers either did nothing about the reported behaviour or conducted a “sham” investigation, according to the research. The abuser was punished in just 6% of cases.


Japan is another country without a law restricting workplace abuse. Almost a third of people surveyed there, both male and female, told Human Rights Watch they had experienced harassment in the past three years.


But the problem persists even in countries with anti-bullying legislation. A YouGov Poll for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) found almost a third of UK workers had endured workplace bullying.


This costs the UK economy almost $22.5 billion in absences, staff turnover and lost productivity a year, according to a study by ACAS.

Losses on this scale provide a huge incentive for companies to foster an inclusive working atmosphere where hostile behaviour is not tolerated.

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