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The role of HR in workplace bullying - 3 Plus International

The role of HR in workplace bullying

by Mar 21, 2024

The role of HR in workplace bullying

Despite the passage of time the role of HR in the workplace bullying problem remains as nuanced as it ever was.

I’ve been involved in workplace bullying and harassment for almost two decades. It saddens me to see that almost twenty years later it is still part of everyday conversation in the workplace and discussion on social media platforms. Despite an increasing number of organisations having policies in place to handle this abusive behaviour, it still seems to be unaddressed.

In the US 30% of Americans report by bullying in the workplace; another 19% have witnessed it; 49% are affected by it; and 66% are aware that workplace bullying happens.

Meanwhile, 5-10% of the European workforce is at any one time subjected to bullying at the workplace.

Personally, I connect the bullying of women with sexism and harassment because for many women they are inextricably linked.

What has also happened is that despite the passage of time the role of HR in the workplace bullying problem remains as nuanced as it ever was.

The role of HR in workplace bullying  – the theory

HR has several functions in instances of workplace bullying:

1. Duty of Care

As a corporate function, HR has a duty of care with the organsiation’s leadership team to ensure that any workplace is safe, not just physically, but psychologically. As a function, it is responsible for developing and implementing policies and procedures related to acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviour.  This includes bullying prevention and intervention. I would prefer it was not called inappropriate behaviour because that for me is a form of “washing”  and tones it down to make it less serious than it really is. This involves creating clear definitions of bullying, creating reporting processes and holding the perpetrators accountable and

HR plays a crucial role in educating employees and managers about what constitutes bullying behavior, how to recognise it, and how to prevent it. This includes providing training on communication skills, conflict resolution, and promoting a respectful work environment.

Above all, they are responsible for ensuring that the organisation complies with statutory requirements in effect in their geography.

2. Monitoring and prevention

When any individual records a complaint around bullying and harassment, HR is responsible for conducting a prompt and thorough investigation. This involves gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and taking appropriate action to address the issue. Their role is to ensure confidentiality throughout the investigation process and provide support to the target, the perpetrator, and the accused.

During this process, they should provide support to employees who have experienced bullying, ideally including access to counseling services. During an inquiry, depending on the situation they may provde temporary reassignment to the target, preventing retaliation and even putting the perpetrator on leave of absence.  They also provide assistance in navigating the reporting and resolution process.

 

role of HR in workplace bullying

 

If the investigation concludes that someone is guilty of bullying behaviour,  HR is responsible for taking appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrator in line with organsiational policy.

The role of HR in workplace bullying  – the reality

1. Organisational shield

Make no mistake HR is there to protect the company. They will protect the target when it looks as if litigation is lurking. This is what we saw with the Harvey Weinstein affair when those involved went to extreme lengths to shield both Weinstein and Miramax, with it is said, to 80 stringent NDAs. Thankfully there seem to be steps to make this practice illegal in many geographies.

We saw this again with Christian Horner the sex pest of F1 Red Bull Racing. Accused of sexual harassment the organisation suspended the female target of his sex texts.

2. Downplaying incidents

Although HR departments are responsible for handling complaints related to workplace bullying they frequently downplay or ignore specific complaints. They may even advise targets not to pursue their complaint especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power. If the organisation has a culture that tolerates aggressive behaviour then the task of HR is even harder.

Some years ago I collaborated with Annabel Kay, CEO of Irenicon who led anti-bullying and harassment initiatives in the U.K. Many organisation do not tackle bullies until the sixth offence or there has been a noticeably serious escalation. This discourages other women from coming forward and perpetuates a culture of silence and complicity.

3. Ignoring red flags

Many women are angry at HR because they won’t take action until there is a formal complaint. Like ostriches, they hide their heads in the sand with the hope that if it “ain’t reported it ain’t happening” mentality.  In my long experience, they are never shocked when something severe finally emerges. They know what’s going on. In my career on occasion, I’ve even been advised not to be in a closed room with certain senior men.

Worth a read: Workplace red flags women ignore – 3 Plus International

HR Challenges

That is not to say that navigating any issue of bullying is easy for HR. Distinguishing between normal workplace conflict and bullying is sometimes not clear-cut. Many employees are not aware that certain behaviour constitutes bullying, so raising awareness has to be a top priority. Many business leaders are not willing to finance this.

When the perpetrator is senior and perhaps a key revenue generator, leadership teams will put them under pressure to find a soft compromise. Very often if the HR person is a woman they are accused of gender bias. In other organisations the function is not taken seriously.

Whatever the size of the organsiation, it’s important that CEOs give HR the neutrality and teeth and trust to act independently. But above all corporate leaders need to learn that they can’t ignore these problems. They need to take action before lawsuits appear, or negative quarterly results tell them that something is amiss.

By then it is already too late.

 

If you are struggling with bullying in your organisation or personally contact 3Plus NOW

 

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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