Fear of confronting bullies is driven from the top

As the architects and guardians of anti-bullying policies and procedures, HR staff are very often exploited, as can be seen in the results of the Personnel Today/Andrea Adams Trust survey.

But, regrettably, I have also found there to be autocratic minorities within HR departments, whose prime central motivation is not to think together about the complexity of the issues surrounding workplace bullying, but to impose their will on the majority.

The most worrying issue is the development of fear within organisations, where a worker no longer dares speak their mind for fear of the repercussions.

These issues raise some pertinent questions. Do HR staff have any responsibility to intervene and question an organisation if someone within it is being abused? Where does their responsibility lie in this matter of human rights in the workplace and at what point does the infringement of basic humanity require them to respond?

Balanced against this dilemma is the motive and means of acting. If you enter into the defence of human rights in organisations, you will surely be subjected to enormous stresses and considerable, often subtle, humiliating personal attacks.

I am constantly struggling with the question of what constitutes an effective intervention where HR is concerned. Managing workplace conflicts, including bullying, is not a soft issue. It is such a hard issue that organisations sometimes fail to grasp how to handle their internal conflicts.

What is surely required is an analysis of the organisational structure by HR employees, not just investigations of individuals.

Meanwhile, questions will be asked about where your loyalties lie. In all of this you will be criticised for either acting too quickly or too slowly and for not informing people what is going on.

Our survey indicates that the challenge for HR is not only to ensure effective use of policies and procedures, but to understand that recognition and awareness of bullying is an issue everyone needs to address. Getting to grips with the problem from all sides is about awareness, recognition and training.

Vital statistics

  • 30% relocated the victim of bullying
  • 79% said that bullying affected their confidence
  • 56% started looking for another job
  • 9% made a formal complaint
  • 35% said the bullying went on for longer than a year
  • 46% said tackling bullying had become a higher HR priority than a year ago
  • 5% didn’t know how their organisation deals with bullying
  • 53% have been bullied at work
  • 16% had been bullied by a colleague

Lyn Witheridge is CEO at the Andrea Adams Trust

Feedback from the profession

Amanda Jones, head of diversity, Co-op

 “Organisations cannot afford to ignore bullying and harassment in the work-place because they destroy teamwork, morale and commitment. [Co-op has] tried to remove this negative behaviour by creating a top-down initiative as part of our diversity strategy – to raise awareness of the need to treat others with respect and show consideration for their feelings.”

Danny Kalman, HR director, Panasonic Europe

“HR has a key role in changing the organisational culture so that it becomes clear that bullying is not acceptable and all cases will be dealt with according to company policy. To achieve this change, support from top management is essential and, if bullying occurs, it must be dealt with in an open, fair and transparent manner. This will send a strong signal throughout the company.”

Ray Fletcher, HR director, T&G union

 “There has been a gradual increase among some HR professionals to adopt a macho style and achieve change by using all sorts of unprofessional methods. Some HR staff and line managers feel that it is okay to adopt an ‘anything goes’ attitude to ensure an organisation is successful. HR directors have a duty to ensure this culture does not prevail in their organisation and to stand up to those who bully staff to achieve their objectives. We need HR professionals to have the confidence to make a stand even if the person doing the bullying is their own boss. Culture can only change when someone says enough is enough.”

Gill Hibberd, assistant director of HR, Hertfordshire CC

“It’s a sad state of affairs if organisations are experiencing bullying at this level and not tackling it with the highest of priority. In Hertfordshire we survey our employees annually and ask whether the work environment is free from bullying. Organisations need to ensure that their values are clearly known to all employees and are demonstrated at the top.”

Alf Turner, HR director, British Gas

“If there has been a problem for HR people it has generally been from tough line customers rather than from within the function itself. One can make interventions on culture such as better education, training and policy, but being public and holding the line on zero tolerance is critical. Effective responses and consequence management are just as important in tackling bullying. One thing we all need to watch is the implications of better performance management in organisations. A key lesson is that as we address the poor performers it is not unusual for them to claim that they are being harassed. Investigations invariably show they are not and are just being effectively managed for the first time.”

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