Dr Austin Tay



They come with different labels: toxic leaders, unsavory personality, the dark side of personality, but what do they actually mean? In recent months, there have been lots of articles that touch on how to identify rogue leaders and how to screen off employees who exhibit undesirable behaviors using personality questionnaires. This sudden surge of interest might be due to, perhaps, the disclosure of misbehaving executives in the financial industry. While I applaud these authors creating the awareness, I believe their approach to the issue is skin deep.

While personality questionnaires are good to identify and predict future behaviors, they form only a small part of assessing an individual’s personality. To label someone as toxic or having a dark side personality and equate that to bullying seems too simplistic. How one behaves at work can be subjected to various situations such as the need to perform, stress and re-organization. All these can be catalysts for acting negatively towards others. Can a personality tool really tease out the unsavory side of an individual and label them toxic? Or is this merely psychometric providers jumping on the bandwagon of bullying in the workplace, particularly since the culture of whistleblowing has been encouraged. (See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11520274/Banker-dubbed-Crazy-Miss-Cokehead-awarded-3.2m-for-sexual-harassment.html)

The over-reliance on such a personality tool poses a few issues. If a proper debrief has been done, the conversation will have been awkward. If the debrief has not been done, the organizations might have put themselves in a position of litigation. Lastly, identifying individuals who exhibit such behaviors and not employing them on such a basis does not eradicate the unsavory behaviors but just passes the bulk to another organization. I can fully appreciate organizations not wanting to take the risk of employing someone who might become a liability that can be difficult to get rid of. How about those who have already been employed and have been working in the organization, what insights can a personality questionnaire provide that the organization does not already know? Should, then, organizations which are interested in identifying such unsavory characters in their midst be rushing to assess individuals using a personality tool? I will say hold your horses! Just be mindful that a personality questionnaire, as it is intended, will only identify how individuals have behaved and predicted how they will behave at work. That’s it!

Regardless of how such behaviors are labeled or packaged, what these authors do not mention is the repercussion of such behaviors on the recipients. What these authors are interested in is the identification of the behavior of individuals but they are not interested in addressing those of their actions, which are classified as negative acts or bullying.

Workplace bullying or negative acts at work are by no means new phenomena (for research on workplace bullying, check out http://www.iawbh.org) but I reckon it is a topic that most organizations like to avoid discussing. While a personality tool teases out behavior, bullying research focuses on antecedents (such as the interplay of the work environment and stress) and the impact of bullying on both individuals (those being bullied, bystanders and also those who bully) and organizations (such as absenteeism, attrition and productivity). Unfortunately, while such actions are rife in the workplace, not many organizations are equipped to deal with bullying, i.e. having proper policies against bullying or having trained personnel mediating such conflicts. To date, with the exception of Australia, no country, has legislation that primarily targets workplace bullying.

So where do we go from here? I believe it is time for organizations to look at their policies to see how their employees are protected against workplace bullying or negative acts at work. They should seek help from experts and ensure resources are available to help employees who are exposed to negative acts. After all, they have a duty of care to their employees.

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