HR shouldn’t pull punches with bullies

Almost two-thirds of workplace victims not given help needed: Survey
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/05/2011

A lot of people claim to be bullied in the workplace — more than one-quarter (27 per cent), according to a recent CareerBuilder survey of 5,671 full-time workers in the United States. As a solution, 28 per cent of the respondents sought the assistance of HR but, alarmingly, 62 per cent said no action was taken.

One of the challenges is the lack of a concrete description of workplace bullying, though some jurisdictions have some codification of the term in legislation, such as Quebec, said Heather MacKenzie, founder and senior partner of the Integrity Group in Vancouver.

Bullying is not singular, it’s repetitive behaviour, it’s enduring and it usually escalates, she said. With harassment, intention isn’t relevant under the law but with bullying, there is an intention to undermine the target, though the bully may not fully understand what he’s doing, said MacKenzie. Workplace bullying can be verbal or non-verbal and sometimes violent but from a psychological or emotional perspective, it can be really intimidating for someone in HR, she said.

“HR needs to get themselves educated on the appropriate definition of bullying,” said MacKenzie. “It’s a good idea to start building a practitioner’s confidence around the subject matter because it’s alive and well and exists in most workplaces.”

Sometimes a person is bullied once by a boss having a bad day, for example, and that’s not necessarily considered bullying or psychological harassment, said Lisa Barrow, a healthy workplace consultant based in Port Colborne, Ont.

“This is where sometimes human resources doesn’t want to get involved because they think that it’s not a major issue,” she said. “HR tends to dismiss it as a personality conflict. This is where the problem is when it comes to targeted people going into HR to raise their concerns because they feel that they’re not going to be heard or someone will say they’re overly sensitive.”

Workplace bullying is also a very subjective issue, said Barrow. One person may be yelled and screamed at and brush it off while another might be highly offended. It’s very similar to sexual harassment when it first became an issue in the 1980s, she said. Once the legislation was in place, people were questioning: “What is it? How do I know?”

The bullying is also subjective because bullies can conceal their actions. “The bully, on some occasions, will overtly demonstrate negative behaviour towards a person but a lot of times it’s very subtle behaviour,” said Barrow.

Often the bully is a middle manager and successful at controlling the flow of information, so he can be a friend one day and undermine someone the next, said MacKenzie. That can keep the target off-balance at all times and if she tries to seek help from an upper manager, very often the bully has already bad-mouthed her to his boss.

“In many cases, how a situation can get dismissed is because the bully perhaps has already been successful in undermining the neutrality of someone in HR,” she said.

HR has so many things on its plate that it’s tough to deal with emotional people and unsubstantiated complaints, said Valerie Cade, a workplace bullying expert based in Calgary.

“HR works for the company so they’re in a tough spot. The company will tell HR, ‘These people are adults, tell them to go for coffee.’ HR is told to hurry up and deal with it, don’t acknowledge it and nobody goes to bat for the target, so there’s no system beyond HR,” she said. “The target has no reassurance of a safe place to land.”

HR is given the responsibility to solve the issue but lacks authority in some cases, said Cade. As a result, HR uses conflict resolution strategies that are ineffective with a bully.

“Conflict resolution works when you’ve got an interested party, where it’s mutual,” she said.

And if an employee doesn’t feel human resources is supportive, she may go to an external source, such as a lawyer.

“Once they introduce litigation into the process, it becomes an adversarial relationship. Human resources has to go on the defence and protect the organization,” said Barrow. “So we want to try to stop it from getting to that level.”

What HR should be doing

A person accused of being a bully may enter the meeting with HR acting very professional and charming, so HR can’t be sure who said what, said Cade. Furthermore, that person might have higher authoritative power than HR. So HR should explain what behaviour is acceptable and tell the bully he has two more chances or he’s out.

“That gets away from he says, she says,” said Cade. “There’s no cure (for bullying), it’s an addiction, and the only way to change it is to have a consequence.”

HR should also become well-educated on the subject and then decide whether the company policy is sufficient. If there is no policy, something has to be put in place. If HR has any concerns about the wording of the policy and procedure, it should consult a colleague or in-house counsel, said MacKenzie.

“You really don’t want to open up a can of worms, you want to try and give it a fair and tight definition of the subject because you want to encourage people to come forward… but you also want to avoid exposing yourself to any additional liabilities.”

While having a policy in place is a good idea, if it’s just in the employee handbook or on the wall in HR, it doesn’t make a difference, said Barrow. “Leaders in the organization, including HR, need to demonstrate a strong commitment to creating a healthy and safe work environment.”

They must be willing to address the bully and put corrective action in place if the bullying has been going on for a while. That can include sensitivity or harassment training, and if necessary, disciplinary action, including termination, said Barrow, instead of dismissing the bully as “That’s just how John is” or “John’s such a great engineer, we can’t terminate him.”

“(It’s about) holding employees accountable for their actions, conducting an investigation, similar to if someone gets hurts on the job,” she said. “That sends a message to everyone in the workplace that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated.”

Often the bully is a manager or supervisor who produces impressive results for the organization. So HR and other leaders have to show it doesn’t matter how productive people are, it’s the people who matter, their interactions and having a respectful work environment, said Barrow. As with sexual or racial harassment, discipline or termination should be the response.

There are also some bullies who are not really true bullies, said MacKenzie. They may be ill-equipped managers who do inappropriate things. These bullies can change their feathers, with help from a workshop, improved communication and sensitivity training. Others are true bullies who are given warnings and training but, after a few months, slip back into old patterns, she said.

“You cannot rehabilitate a workplace bully — this is the sad part of this. If someone is (a true bully), the only thing an organization can do is move them out and they will resurface, likely somewhere else.”

All accusations should be investigated

And even if an employee is off-base with his accusations of bullying, HR must respond by putting on a neutral hat and asking for details, said MacKenzie.

“(It’s about) taking it seriously enough so this person’s been heard through and then being able to regroup the information and being able to inform that person, ‘We do take things like bullying very seriously and appreciate this is impacting you. What’s your desired outcome from this or how do you propose we deal with it?’” she said.

“Sometimes it has nothing to do with bullying but if it’s causing some kind of friction in the workplace, it behooves HR to take some effort and try and resolve it.”

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