Let me start with a conversation I once had with the VP of a large Bank.

VP: “I get repeatedly shouted at by my CMO in front of my reportees”

Me: Looking at your LinkedIn posts, I thought you were happy. You joined just a year ago; did you not check enough?

VP: They had a 4 rating on Glassdoor and gave me a ₹2 crore offer with a joining bonus.

Me: Is this public yelling only with you?

VP: No, he does it to others as well, and the CEO shouts at him too.

Me: Then why are you still working here?

VP: I am 55; I got a handsome bonus this year. My ESOPs are like gold cuffs, and I won’t get this anywhere. Retiring from here is the best option. Right?

Don’t ask me what I told him, it’s been a year since this chat, and he is still there.

The sudden demise of a senior journalist recently and the reported connection to the repeated abuse he seemed to have suffered from his boss refreshed my memories about the abuses senior leaders suffer and inflict on others.


I am sure you have heard, experienced, or unknowingly supported what can be termed as workplace bullying, abuse, or toxicity. Some of us deliberately use phrases like “let’s apply pressure and see” on colleagues who aren’t performing.

Unlike Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH), which found its wings thanks to the legislation and the Me Too movement, workplace abuse/bullying and induced stress are yet to become a mainstream HR discussion. Most are busy discussing AI in HR. The primary reason for ignoring this damaging culture is because we deflect it in the name of role, industry, and context.

Austrian-born endocrinologist and the author of the book The Stress of Life, Hans Selye coined the term “eustress” or good stress. He argued that there could be some benefits due to Eustress until it reaches a certain level when it becomes distress.

For example, we tend to believe sales roles perform better under pressure. A few industries like Consulting, Media and BFSI are known for the duress the employees go through. Add contexts like month, quarter and year-ends and the triggers for negative stress on many roles in revenue and TRP-driven industries get compounded. It’s everywhere. A study of 1,071 Indian IT professionals published in the Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine found that 35 per cent were classified as having poor quality of life in the psychological domain.

Silent Spectators

We once called over a manager who was shouted at and asked to leave a team meeting by his boss, who had a reputation for losing his temper frequently. The manager completely denied that such a thing had even happened, whereas two colleagues had reported the same incident the previous day. We were in a pickle; should we trust the abused manager or the employees who had reported the incident? When we went back to those colleagues about the manager’s denial, they explained the inaction of management in the past and the leader’s top performing track record context. That day I started to believe in Stockholm syndrome wherein victims sympathise with their abusers and even feel they “deserve” it. But, in the context of enterprises, it might be more of a case of lack of faith in the governance and track record of organisations to act on similar complaints.

Legislation Works

In 2021, as a part of ILO-Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, Gallup conducted roughly 125,000 interviews in 121 countries to gather information regarding people’s experiences of harassment at work. It reported that nearly one in five people had experienced psychological violence and harassment at work, and 55 per cent had reported the incident to their employer or supervisor. In the same study, when asked about the barriers to disclosing these harassment experiences, 43 per cent said they were unclear about procedures and 55 per cent felt it was a waste of time. Sounds familiar?

Countries with workplace anti-bullying laws, like Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, and France, have single-digit rates of employees reporting workplace bullying than countries that don’t have laws, like the United States, South Africa, Canada and Russia, which are in the range of 30-60 per cent. Would a Workplace Abuse & Toxicity Check (WATCH) legislation help India, which has started to realise a significant proportion of its GDP from the Services sectors?

Toxic Attributes

If you are evaluating a new job or recommending an employer to someone, would you check Glassdoor ratings? Out of 118 Indian unicorns, 94 of them have a Glassdoor rating of less than 4. If you look at Fortune Great Places to Work Global Best 100, only 49 per cent have a rating of more than 4. If you are a little more curious or desperate, you might dive deep into the leadership or culture comments. MIT Sloan Management Review did exactly that. After studying 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews, it focused on the negative comments, used text analytics to measure 128 topics, and grouped them into five toxic attributes. They stated that being disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive has by far the largest negative impact on how employees rate their company’s culture in Glassdoor reviews. Do any of these five ring a bell?

The Manifestation

Language, volume, and meeting participation are three key indicators of a team or organisation’s leadership culture. The WFH world has given us a good glimpse into many enterprises, town halls, and meetings. The higher volume, single voice participation and the cuss words were indicative of the disrespectful, non-inclusive, and abusive world of some of the organisations our family and friends work for.

Have you seen the 1994 Hollywood film Disclosure? One of the memorable moments for me was a morning when Michael Douglas walked into the office to find out that his boss, Demi Moore, had completed an important meeting with his peers without him. Yes, exclusion is one of the most aggressive forms of harassment.

Matter of Heart

One of the oldest medical journals, Lancet, published a study by Mika Kivimaki that said a combination of high psychological demands combined with little control of decision-making leads to physiological strain. They followed up for a mean of 13·9 years and concluded that job strain increased the risk of mortality.

Around 12 million young Indians join our already sizable workforce every year. According to WHO, India already accounts for one-fifth of deaths due to cardiovascular disease globally. It’s good to top the knowledge workers count but we sure do not want to top the deaths due to a stressed workforce.

It’s time organisations introduced WATCH (Workplace Abuse and Toxicity Check) if we want to curb this malaise.

(Kamal Karanth is the co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing company)