Workplace bullying and sexual harassment are developing areas of law in the Middle East region. The laws across the GCC regulating these issues are currently much more limited than those that exist in other, more developed jurisdictions. However, recent developments in the UAE signal a shift towards more importance being placed on these workplace issues and we expect to see further regulation in the coming years. In this article, we outline the changes and consider what they mean for employers in the region.
What is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying in UAE often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying includes behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates a worker, often in front of others. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Bullying is different from aggression.
Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily bullies, as long as their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high expectations. Many bullying situations involve employees bullying their peers, rather than a supervisor bullying an employee.
Examples of Workplace Bullying in UAE
- Unwarranted or invalid criticism.
- Blame without factual justification.
- Being treated differently than the rest of your work group.
- Being sworn at.
- Exclusion or social isolation.
- Being shouted at or being humiliated.
- Being the target of practical jokes.
- Excessive monitoring.
What is a workplace bully?
On its surface, bullying is a simple concept. A strong person acts harshly towards someone weaker, and the bullying is blatant and habitual. It includes browbeating and threatening, verbal abuse and yelling. Everyone recognizes that person as a bully.
Obvious bullies ultimately fail
An obvious bully is noisy, overly aggressive and blatant in his attempts to force others to comply with his will. Resist him and he attacks like an ill-bred pit bull. In some toxic workplaces, he may survive for years, or even become a high-level executive. But usually he will get himself fired. His nasty over-the-top bullying is just too obvious. This simple, stupid version of bullying is rarely a path to sustained success in the American workplace.
Beware the clever bully
Because of this, a successful workplace bully is usually much cleverer in his tactics. He rarely resembles the stereotype. His methods are very subtle, disguised with all the right behaviors. In that lies his treachery. People respect and trust him, and he quietly betrays their trust whenever necessary to fulfill his ambitions. For him, the ends always justify the means. And if the bully is particularly good at this, no one except his victims sees the betrayals. In some cases, not even the victims realize what has happened. It gets worse and worse…
To make matters worse, a highly skilled bully usually has the dedication, focus and business acumen to create success, or at least the appearance of success. Then he is honored and promoted, held up as an example of a company-centric leader. He is rewarded while the frustration builds among the targets of his bullying and intimidating, backstabbing and manipulating. For them, life has become an upside-down hell.
Beyond the traditional definition of “bully”
A skilled, clever bully displays an elaborate, complex set of behaviors to exploit people around him. Those who only consider bullying to be blatantly aggressive behavior are missing the point. Any habitual pattern of intentional, socially cruel behavior is bullying, including the subtle tactics of deceit, distortion, misrepresentation and misdirection. When the penalty for resisting someone is destruction of your position and reputation, it’s fair to describe that person as a bully. Using this broad definition, bullying has reached epidemic proportions in the American workplace.
Accidental vs. intentional bullying
Not everyone who displays bullying behaviors can truly be described as a workplace bully. If someone has genuine concern for your well-being, he may be attempting to influence your behavior for your own good. Just because you don’t like his approach doesn’t make him a bully. Or someone may yell at you in frustration. But perhaps he lacks emotional maturity and is overreacting to a stressful situation.
An isolated incident doesn’t prove bullying. Good-hearted people often make mistakes. In contrast, a workplace bully has self-serving goals with a complete lack of respect or caring for others, who he never considers as equals. And among these moral and intellectual inferiors, he feels free to use any means necessary to gain compliance. It is his perpetual intention to dominate those he considers being weak, naive, unaware or otherwise susceptible to his guile.
Bullies, backstabbers and manipulators
Is there someone at your workplace who makes you feel anxious, frustrated or angry? Does that person seem intent on controlling your behavior against your will? Does he belittle, embarrass or even humiliate you? With most people, if you make the effort, you can usually get along. Problems arise and are solved.
But what if your boss, or one of your co-workers, resists any attempt to have a normal, mutually respectful working relationship? Maybe he is overly critical or micromanaging. He seems intent on intimidating or controlling you. Or he appears to support you one day, then undermines you the next. You find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster. You feel confused and manipulated. You feel like you are alone in an increasingly painful struggle against his clever, self-serving, destructive behaviors. Your job has become an ordeal and there seems to be no way out. If this is your situation, then you are probably dealing with a workplace bully.
Corporate/institutional bullying occurs when bullying is entrenched in an organization and becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture Corporate/institutional bullying can manifest itself in different ways:
- Placing unreasonable expectations on employees, where failure to meet those expectations means making life unpleasant (or dismissing) anyone who objects.
- Dismissing employees suffering from stress as “weak” while completely ignoring or denying potential work-related causes of the stress.
- Encouraging employees to fabricate complaints about colleagues with promises of promotion or threats of discipline.
Signs of corporate and institutional bullying
- Failure to meet organizational goals.
- Increased frequencies of grievances, resignations, and requests for transfers.
- Increased absence due to sickness
- Increased disciplinary actions
If you are aware of bullying in the workplace and do not take action, then you are accepting a share of the responsibility for any future abuses. This means that witnesses of bullying behavior should be encouraged to report any such incidences. Individuals are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior when it is understood that the organization does not tolerate such behavior and that the perpetrator is likely to be punished.
Factors that Increase the Risk for Bullying Behavior
- Significant organizational change (i.e., major internal restructuring, technological change).
- Worker characteristics (e.g., age, gender, parental status, apprentice or trainee).
- Workplace relationships (e.g., inadequate information flow between organizational levels, lack of employee participation in decisions.
- Work systems (e.g., lack of policies about behavior, high rate and intensity of work, staff shortages, interpersonal conflict, organizational constraints, role ambiguity and Role conflict.
How Bullying Affects People?
Victims of bullying experience significant physical and mental health problems:
- High stress; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Financial problems due to absence
- Reduced self-esteem
- Musculo skeletal problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased depression/self-blame
- Digestive problems.
What to do when you are bullied at work?
Here is what you can do about bullying:
- Recognize that you are being bullied.
- Realize that you are NOT the source of the problem.
- Recognize that bullying is about control, and therefore has nothing to do with your performance.
- Keep a diary detailing the nature of the bullying (e.g., dates, times, places, what was said or done and who was present).
- Obtain copies of harassing / bullying paper trails; hold onto copies of documents that contradict the bully’s accusations against you (e.g., time sheets, audit reports, etc.).
What the Judiciary is doing to curb workplace Bullying in UAE?
New Disability Discrimination Resolution
In August 2018, the UAE government published Cabinet Resolution No. (43) of 2018 Regarding Supporting Special Needs (People of Determination) Work (Resolution). The Resolution imposes obligations on UAE employers to support the rights of individuals with disabilities, referred to in the UAE as “People of Determination,” by enabling them to access job opportunities on an equal basis with others.
The Resolution follows the introduction of the Card of People of Determination, which provides People of Determination with access to dedicated services and facilities in the country. The Resolution governs both public sector employers and private sector employers. The definition of Special Needs (People of Determination) is broad and includes physical disabilities, as well as mental disabilities and illnesses such as anxiety or depression.
The Resolution governs all aspects of the employment relationship from recruitment to the termination of employment and imposes a number of obligations on employers, including the following:
• Recruitment – Employers must not discriminate against People of Determination during the recruitment process. The Resolution includes a number of procedures that employers should implement to ensure People of Determination are able to participate in the recruitment process. For example, using more than one medium to advertise a position.
• Reasonable accommodations – Employers must provide a suitable working environment and provide reasonable and suitable accommodations to ensure that People of Determination can carry out their work safely and securely.
• Time off – Employers must grant People of Determination the right to take time off work to deal with any health conditions or treatment. The Resolution is not entirely clear on this point, however, it would appear that an employer can still lawfully terminate an employee if they have taken more than 90 calendar days sick leave in a 12 month period, in accordance with Article 85 of the Labour Law.
• Termination of employment – Employers must not terminate the employment of a person with special needs due to their disability, provided the employee is able to perform the requirements of their role with reasonable accommodations (this prohibition extends to an employee who develops a disability during the employment or whose disability is exacerbated during the period of employment).
Proposal to Introduce Specific Compensation for Discrimination Claims in the DIFC
The DIFC Employment Law already prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, race, nationality, religion and mental or physical disability. However, in practice these provisions have scarcely been used by employees due to an absence of any specific remedies for discrimination claims in the DIFC Employment Law.
In March 2018, the DIFC Authority released a draft new employment law for consultation. The draft law includes two new grounds of discrimination, age and pregnancy, and introduces remedies for discrimination. Under the draft law, if the court finds that unlawful discrimination has occurred it may:
- Make a declaration as to the rights of the complainant and the respondent
- Make a recommendation that the respondent takes specified steps to remove or reduce the adverse effect of the discriminatory conduct on the complainant
- Order the respondent to pay compensation of up to one year’s salary to the complainant or up to two year’s pay if the employer fails to implement a recommendation of the court to rectify the discrimination without reasonable excuse
- Order a combination of the above remedies
- The employee will also have the option of seeking a court order to require an employer to disclose information regarding any alleged discrimination.
There is no date set for the implementation of the new law and it may be amended to incorporate comments received during the consultation process. However, once the new law is in force we expect to see employees using these provisions to challenge dismissals, particularly given there is no arbitrary dismissal claim available in the DIFC.
Discriminatory Job Advertisements
The issue of discriminatory job advertisements, which have been commonplace in GCC countries, has recently come under scrutiny in the UAE. In September 2018, the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation publicly condemned the use of job advertisements that specify a candidate’s gender, race or ethnicity.
Job advertisements that specify a person’s race or ethnicity are already captured by Federal Law No 2 of 2015 (Anti-Discrimination Law). The focus of the Anti-Discrimination Law is largely to combat religious extremism and prevent hate crimes.
However, it does include a broad discrimination provision, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, belief, sect, faith, creed, race, colour or ethnic origin. As a matter of practice, we have not yet seen this provision enforced or relied upon in an employment context. However, this may change following the Ministry’s recent statement.
The penalties for breaching the Anti-Discrimination Law are significant, with fines of between AED 500,000 and AED 1 million and imprisonment for a minimum period of five years. There are also vicarious liability provisions that may make an employer vicariously liable for any breaches of the Anti-Discrimination Law by its employees. In light of the Ministry’s recent statement, all employers should remind themselves of their obligations under the Anti-Discrimination Law and ensure that their recruitment processes, particularly their job advertisements, do not discriminate on the grounds of religion, belief, sect, faith, creed, race, colour or ethnic origin.
As a matter of good practice, employers should avoid discriminating on the basis of gender. The Ministry has condemned the practice of specifying gender in job advertisements. However, the current laws on gender discrimination are very limited and would not capture such advertisements.
The only protection that currently exists outside of the DIFC and ADGM is a requirement under the Labour Law that a female’s remuneration shall be equal to that of a male if she performs the same work.
Although the protections on gender discrimination are currently limited, we expect this to change in coming years. In both the UAE and KSA there has been a focus on promoting women in the workforce and creating job opportunities for them. For example, in KSA the employment of Saudi women previously counted as additional credit under the Nitaqat program (although this is no longer the case) and, in April 2018, the UAE authorities announced that a draft law on gender equal pay had been adopted, although this law is not yet in force.