Take your head out of the sand to restore workplace harmony

In one of the professional networking forums someone recently asked why Human Resources is often passive when it comes to workplace bullying.  We believe that no organisation can afford to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the issue.  But despite some high profile legal cases, where the employer has been found to be vicariously liable for employee behaviour, sadly, it seems that some HR personnel wait for someone else to bring a complaint or simply encourage the bullied (who may be afraid of the consequences) to report the offence.  Even worse some have turned a blind eye when the bully comes from the senior ranks or have helped these individuals manage out the “incompetents”.

But bullying, whilst a very serious issue, is quite a complex one – after all, in many cases, it’s about the different perceptions of the individuals involved.  Sometimes the bully doesn’t realise the effect their behaviour is having and sometimes the bullied can be confused if the abuse is insidious.  Furthermore, without any concrete evidence of the negative behaviours, HR may give the excuse that they can’t do anything.  Another reason for a lack of action may be that HR is afraid – because past experience of intervening may have had further negative consequences.  For example where they have instigated formal disciplinary proceedings they may have found the process to be stressful to all concerned, and that it’s led to sickness absence, dismissals and resignations, and had a negative affect on team morale and productivity – but of course left unchecked bullying behaviour will have similar consequences. 

HR may also be afraid of the perpetrators in the senior ranks – perhaps feeling that the organisation is dependent or beholden to these figures.

Perhaps the best approach then is to try and prevent bullying and be explicit about what HR will do should it occur:

  • HR should have a robust and well communicated policy articulating the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect and what it will do if this is not adhered to.  Remember what you focus on is what you’ll get so do be positive about your vision.
  • HR should also ensure that all employees – no matter their rank – are aware of the policy and how their own behaviours contribute to this.  And please note this is not just a simple process of circulating a staff handbook (which is consigned to a drawer and forgotten about!).
  • Anyone (including HR), should then be empowered to report examples of abuse – on the understanding that the aim is to restore a culture of harmony and not one of suspicion and distrust. 
  • HR should then take appropriate action – ensuring the action is sensitive to the people involved and demonstrates that the organisation cares.
  • Essentially, both the bully and the bullied need help – whether in the form of guidance and counselling, and/or training and mentoring – and HR should ensure that this isn’t just offered, but taken up.
  • And HR should act to uncover the causes of conflict – because for example, excessive pressure and unfairness can cause stress which in turn can result in all sorts of negative thoughts and deeds.  These causes then need to be addressed.

We’re not saying this is easy, but the ostrich approach to bullying really isn’t acceptable.  If you’re not sure how to restore or maintain harmony in your workplace or need some help demonstrating your duty of care to employees, then just ask us.

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