Workplace bullying - Are human resources part of the problem or the solution?

Many social media users have asked whether your should turn to human resources to deal with workplace harassment.

This question is very important. Human resources should be there to help you. But they all to often fail to help and can even make things worse.

In my book The Bully's Trap, I devote a chapter to looking at human resources in the context of harassment and bullying. Have a read below and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

When I go into organizations to do an assessment, it is usually when the organization is in serious trouble or after a major incident. The first thing I attempt to determine is the role that human resources plays in influencing culture.

In many organizations and the many cases that I have dealt with, I have found that well over 70 percent of the time human resources is part of the problem versus part of the solution.

In most cases human resource people view bullying as a personality clash or a management style issue and apply conflict resolution techniques to resolve the problem. Usually this makes the situation worse for the target and the bully feels further empowered because they have successfully deflected their predatory behaviors, manipulating human resources to become their ally.

Organizational cultures dictate the role that human resources plays in preventing and stopping bullying.

In Disjointed cultures, human resources are called in after the fact and told to make the problem go away. Here the head of human resources is not a key player and lacks authority to hold bullies accountable. Where there is legislation, policies and procedures are put into place but not into practice. Targets and bystanders do not go to human resources because they know that human resources have no power and/or courage to properly intervene. Heads of human resources in these cultures are usually not equipped to deal with bullying. People working in human resources in these cultures know what bullying is because they are bullied and are cowered into thinking that this goes with the territory.

In Dictatorial cultures, human resources are also called in after the fact and told to make the problem go away. Here the head of human resources could be a key player and if so, is part of the problem. Bullies in these cultures are considered heroes, because they are viewed as high performers and have more credibility than their targets. Bullies know this and manipulate human resources to become their allies. Where there is legislation, policies and procedures are put into place but not into practice, compliance is for legal and security reasons versus prevention. Targets and bystanders do not go to human resources because they do not trust the leadership and by extension, people in human resources. In many cases heads of human resources have the technical and academic credentials to be the best and the brightest in the profession but lack the influence and or courage to prevent and stop bullying from occurring. As in Disjointed cultures, human resource people working in these cultures know what bullying is, because they are bullied, and because of the environment in which they work, they tend to become a bully who is targeted by another bully.

In Stable cultures, human resources are mandated to make employees free and safe from bullying. Here the head of human resources is a key player and has the authority not only to hold bullies accountable but more importantly prevent bullying from occurring. Legislation does not drive putting policies and procedures in place. They have been in place and are firmly entrenched and integrated in the way they conduct all of their affairs. Where there are incidents, human resources conduct a swift but comprehensive investigation and resolve the situation. Targets and bystanders go to human resources because they trust both the system and the individual, and they are viewed as being neutral. Heads of human resources in these cultures are the best and the brightest of their profession because they apply their technical and academic background and experience and view their role as custodians of a positive culture. Human resource people working in these cultures know what bullying is because they have studied the topic.

While the CEO should own and drive the culture of an organization, the head of human resources should be responsible and accountable for the integrity of the cultural health of the organization in the same way the CFO is responsible and accountable for the integrity of the financial systems and reporting.

The head of human resources is in the best position, regardless of the culture, to stop bullying from occurring. This should not be a matter of choice; it is a requirement of the job. If the head of human resources is not equipped or does not have the courage to make it stop, they are in the wrong position and as such, part of the problem.

The following outlines what human resources should do to ensure that the work environment is safe and free from bullying.

  1. Conduct a comprehensive annual risk assessment. 

  2. Report findings and a plan of action to senior management and the board of directors for their endorsement and approval. 

  3. Develop and institutionalize policies, procedures and programs that address the issue of workplace violence. 

  4. Include workplace violence in the code of conduct. 

  5. As part of the hiring of and promotion to a management position process, have a psychological assessment be a condition of acceptance. No exemptions. 

  6. Develop a “Terms of Engagement” agreement for all senior staff to sign.
  7. Ensure that the performance management systems are clear, fair, reasonable, and not ambiguous or subjective, thereby not giving a bully the opportunity to entrap a target.
    1. Regularly train managers and supervisors on:
      • Performance Management 

      • The policies, procedures and programs 
      • Identification of risk behaviors 

      • How to recognize, respond, report and prevent bullying 

  8. Conduct an annual awareness program for all employees outlining their rights and responsibilities on workplace violence. 

  9. Develop an incident investigation protocol that is swift, fair, objective, comprehensive, and minimizes the risk of the target becoming the villain. 

  10. In the event the CEO is also the CBO (Chief Bullying Officer), coach and guide him/her on changing their attitudes and behaviors. If they are not successful, they must report this to the Chair of the board of directors for their intervention. 

Heads of human resources should view becoming part of the solution as a real opportunity to gain influence and relevance. Key to becoming part of the solution is to have credibility as an honest broker that acts in the best interest of all concerned.

The red Flags If bullying is occurring there are always indicators that it is happening. If people in human resources do not monitor these indicators they are part of the problem.

The majority of instances of bullying are not reported by either the target or the bystanders. Just because there are no reports or complaints of bullying does not mean it is not going on. Usually bullying situations are talked about amongst employees and bullies build a reputation. If bullies are not confronted they are in essence allowed to run loose.

Other than employees talking amongst themselves, there are a number of indicators that can identify and expose bullying and the bullies. To be part of the solution people in human resources need to follow up on any and every indicator. Where there is a bully running loose, there is almost always a number of telltale signs, and by tying what may appear to be seemingly unrelated comments, events and situations together, it usually tells a story.

The following outlines the telltale signs that a bully or a number of bullies are running loose:

      The “noise level” or comments that people are making, directly and indirectly. If there is a bully running loose, people will talk about it. People in human resources need to have people in the organization keeping them in the loop when they hear people talking about it. If the other indicators of bullying are there and the people in human resources are not hearing the “noise level” they are out of the loop. 

      Anonymous letters from people who are aware of a situation, but are afraid to bring it forward. 

      Calls to a whistleblower hot line. If there are no or few calls to the hot line, this is an indicator that there may be a fear factor in reporting wrongdoing. 

      Comments made by employees on the social media e.g. blogs. Don’t try to stop the blogs or identify employees who post—stop the reasons employees feel it necessary to post. 

      High turnover is an indicator that something is amiss. This, connected with other indicators, could expose bullying. 

      Exit interviews. When people leave they should be asked whether bullying was a factor in their departure. People may not be direct in their comments, not wanting to burn bridges, but will usually give comments like, “He could be difficult to work with, or demanding, but we just learned to live with it.” When comments like these are made, the interviewer should probe and make the person comfortable in giving specifics. 

      Increase in the absentee rate. 

      Increase in the number of people on stress leave. 

      Difficulty in getting people to transfer into a particular department or division. 

      Engagement survey data comparison by department. 

      Written comments that are made in engagement surveys. A lack of, or few written comments are an indicator that there could be a fear factor in expressing viewpoints or concerns. 

      Comments made by vendors, recruiters and other service providers. While these people are external to the organization, they are often bystanders and may hear and see more of what is going on in an organization than what the organizational leaders and human resource people hear and see. These people could also be a bully’s target. 

      In organizations that have medical departments, regular and ongoing dialogue on levels of stress within the organization. 

      Increase in calls made to the EAP (employee assistance program). The providers of these programs should be required to make human resources aware of bullying situations, with the assurance that the target’s confidentiality is protected. 

      Inconsistencies in representations made by a manager to discipline or terminate a subordinate. (A review of the subordinate’s performance history compared to what the manager is representing.) 

      Managers who take all the credit when things go well and blame others when things go wrong. 

      Individuals who constantly have disputes with others and are unwilling to compromise on their positions. 

      Previous accusations or incidences of bullying. 

On becoming aware of a situation or the probability of bullying occurring, the onus should be on human resources to check into it immediately. 

The first step is to review all indicators that are available which would add credence or discount the allegation or the probability of bullying. This is where it is important to tie the seemingly unrelated comments, events and situations together. As much of this information should be readily available, it should not take an inordinate amount of time to pull together. Depending on the situation, it may be necessary to conduct interviews with people who are close to the situation. 

Armed with this information, the human resource person should meet with the suspected bully’s immediate supervisor to review the situation and determine who should have a meeting with the suspected bully. 

The purpose of the meeting is to outline to the person that bullying is suspected, along with the reasons for suspecting. If there is not a specific complaint and there is no direct evidence, the person should not be accused of being a bully. However, in the discussion it is appropriate to indicate that there are indicators that bullying is occurring and the organization is obliged to investigate and take the necessary steps to make sure that bullying is not occurring.

It is also appropriate to challenge the person on the reasons the indicators are there, for example asking why turnover is high. The ideal outcome is to have the person acknowledge that there is validity to the concerns being raised and agreeing to change the behavior. If this happens the person should be asked what the organization can do to help change the behavior, for example help with anger management. At the end of the meeting it must be pointed out that the expectation will be for the indicators to change, for example lower turnover and a much lower “noise level.” In situations where the person denies being a bully and rationalizes the indicators, then a more comprehensive investigation should be conducted. The person who is suspected of being a bully should be made aware of this and that people who are close to the investigation will be interviewed. It should also be made very clear that any intimidation or retaliation against people being interviewed will result in severe disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.

The investigation should be swift, objective and comprehensive. If in the investigation bullying is validated, the bully must be dealt with. Part of the investigation should be an assessment as to whether the bully can be rehabilitated.

If the assessment concludes that the bully cannot change, the bully must be removed from the situation, where they are not able to bully others. If they are moved within the organization, it is important that this move is not seen to be a reward.

If the assessment concludes that the bully can change, the organization should offer to help put a corrective action plan in place and closely monitor the situation.