Are HR professionals bullied at work?

If you want a job in which you won’t be subjected to workplace bullying, then perhaps the human resources field isn’t for you.

Pamela Babcock, writing for the Society for Human Resource Management’s Safety and Security blog (link here), reports on Dr. Teresa Daniel’s survey of 102 Kentucky HR professionals:

In an online survey of 102 HR professionals in Kentucky, 31.4 percent reported that they had been bullied at work. Behaviors included work interference or sabotage (42.4 percent), verbal abuse (33.3 percent), and offensive conduct such as threats and humiliation or intimidation (24.2 percent).

HR professionals reported being bullied at the same rates as other employees responding to recent surveys. However, an important finding was that over half (54.1 percent) of the bullied participants reported that they felt that the abuse was related to their role as an HR practitioner.

Why is this so?

Daniel then asked targeted individuals why they believed they were being bullied:

In follow-up interviews, 28 participants offered the following explanations as to why they felt HR is a target for bullying:

  • HR must often tell managers “no.”
  • The role is not fully appreciated and/or understood.
  • HR is perceived by some as lacking business knowledge.
  • HR practitioners sometimes lack professional credentials, education or “organizational fit.”
  • Insecure managers might see competent HR professionals as a threat.

Babcock’s article closes with useful recommendations from Daniel and survey respondents on how HR professionals can deal with these situations.

Caught in the middle

As this survey confirms, when HR practitioners disagree with the wishes or decisions of senior management, they sometimes pay the consequences.

This especially may be the case when HR disagrees with management on personnel matters, and it can lead to being bullied. In a blog post titled “Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company?,” I concluded:

For HR practitioners who see their role solely as an extension of upper-level management, questions of how to treat the rank & file are easy to resolve: Go with what the bosses want, even if it means that someone gets screwed over or unethical behavior is swept under the rug. In cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment, we know what this usually means.

Conscientious HR practitioners, however, face a dilemma when management philosophy and practice run squarely into the ethical treatment of workers. If they antagonize their bosses by doing the right thing, they, too, may find themselves on the firing line.

4 responses

  1. David, thanks so much for posting this. I am not an HR professional, but when openings are posted at my organization for HR jobs or admin jobs with a strong HR component, I think “No. Absolutely not.” And the reason I think that is because of how impossible it would be to do the right thing in a corrupt system.

  2. You raise an important point here. These folks may be the hit men, but they’re in the impossible position of having the responsibility to go after a targeted worker, but not the authority to turn back. Sadly, that very conflict is what may propel some to be even more aggressive than necessary. The more a worker fights back and reminds HR that they are violating ethics/laws/contracts/etc., the meaner some HR employees might become toward the worker not because they think the worker is wrong, but because they know the worker is right.

    What I’d like to see are some rogue HR employees go public with their stories. Now that would help demonstrate just how nasty some of these games can become!

  3. All employees in service professions are in the same boat…where bullying flourishes employees must choose between supporting the legitimate business/service objectives supported by mission and values statements, or supporting the structure and status quo. Structure and function, when not aligned, define the essence of the environment i which such abuse will be tolerated or condoned.

    Employers have the ability and responsibility to align the structure and functions of the organization, but all too frequently lack the courage, skills, and/or will to do so. Ethics, accountability, transparency and education might work to reverse the tide.

  4. I’ve been an HR professional for over 30 years and have been bullied in 2 of my long term jobs — by my HR Directors. At least if you are not in HR in your company you have the hope of finding an advocate in your HR department. However, if you re in HR — and your bully is your HR Director/Manger, you really do have no place to go.

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