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.

Coffee and work

The most important machine in my office suite

Coffee and work. Work and coffee. David Crookes, in a great piece for the British Independent, “Thirsty Work: The coffee shop as office,” makes the connection:

The bond between coffee and work is strong. It has long been the staple drink for employees in offices, leading to rather wired workers but ones with alert brains ready to tackle the tasks of the day. Ever since American chair manufacturer Barcalounger became the first company to allow employees a coffee break in 1902, such a breather has grown to become an integral part of the working day on both sides of the pond.

Rocket fuel

Perhaps hell hath no fury like a late convert, but I didn’t pick up the coffee habit until my mid-30s. Now, that morning cup is a staple, typically followed by 1 or 2 more later in the day. And if I’m working late into the night, on occasion I brew up a pot to give me a needed jolt.

By conventional standards, I’m not a super-charged coffee drinker, but I confess to being hooked on the stuff. The effect of coffee is both physical and psychological in a way that a strong tea or energy drink like Red Bull simply can’t pull off. It tells me to start the day, push through the day, or work into the wee hours.

Hey, we’re part of a tradition!

As Crookes notes, the coffee-and-work connection goes way back:

When Edward Lloyd opened a rather modest London coffee shop in 1688, it became known for more than just its delicious hot black liquid. Large numbers of merchants, shipowners and insurance brokers would stop by, not only to relax and socialise but to trade.

The coffee shop quickly developed into the perfect place to obtain marine insurance and its reputation grew to the point where its influence continues to this day. Only now we know it as Lloyd’s of London.

Writers and coffee

Coffee seems to be especially associated with writers. Crookes invokes J.K. Rowling, Marina Fiorato, Ernest Hemingway, Henrik Ibsen, and Malcolm Gladwell as examples of writers drawn to cafes and coffee shops to do their work.

In popular fiction, I’ve noticed how many mystery and suspense novel writers create protagonists who are hooked on coffee — by the gallons. The late Stieg Larsson, author of the wildly popular Millenium trilogy (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), must’ve been addicted, because investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist — one of his major characters — seems to brew up a pot of coffee in every scene!

Health benefits

To justify the habit, I’ll close with a reference to the possible health benefits of coffee, including decreased risk of certain cancers and less susceptibility to depression. Just type “coffee health benefits” into Google and you’ll see!

Four Bay Staters on eBossWatch’s 2011 “America’s Worst Bosses” list

Four denizens of the Bay State have been named to eBossWatch’s “America’s Worst Bosses” list for 2011. Each year, eBossWatch assembles a panel of workplace experts who evaluate leading candidates for the distinction, basing their selections largely on publicly available records and news reports.

In addition to the personal hurt inflicted by their actions, some of these bosses are costing their employers a lot of money. eBossWatch reports that as “of December 2011, the 2011 America’s Worst Bosses have cost their employers over $145 million in monetary damages and lawsuit settlement payments.”

Jay Severin’s “grateful” interns

Former WTKK-FM talk show host Jay Severin finished No. 6 in this year’s listing after he bragged about his conquests of young interns and employees (link here):

Jay Severin, a controversial talk radio host at WTKK-FM, was fired after admitting on air that he slept with his interns and that they should be grateful for it.

Severin said, “I slept with virtually every young college girl I hired to be an intern or an employee for my firm.

“That’s not the purpose for which they were hired but it certainly was an ancillary dimension of the job.

“Those girls that got to sleep with me got to know their boss better, they got to go on trips, they got to travel in some cases to various parts of the world, to see things and meet people that they never would have seen or done.

Sexual harassment and sewing assignments at the Hull P.D.?

The Hull Police Department seems to be stuck in another era — the Neanderthal Age, perhaps? — when it comes to how it treats women, at least according to a lawsuit alleging harassment inflicted by top brass Richard Billings, Robert Sawtelle, and Dale Shea, who collectively ranked 51st in the 2011 list (link here):

A female police officer in Hull has filed a scathing harassment lawsuit against the department’s chief and two top commanders, alleging the men regularly demeaned her with sexist slurs, and forced her to mend other officers’ uniforms while off duty.

Wendy Cope-Allen, an officer on the Hull force since 2003, is accusing Police Chief Richard Billings and two other supervisory officers, Captain Robert Sawtelle and Lieutenant Dale Shea, of “pervasive and severe’’ sexual harassment, and contends they routinely denigrated other female employees in the department.

Organizational cultures

I appreciate eBossWatch for its annual list and other ways in which it informs us about gruesome workplaces. The annual list, in particular, serves as a stark reminder of how people can be mistreated, even when laws exist that address the offending behavior.

In addition, as I’ve said before, we must remember that dysfunctional organizational cultures often play a huge role in encouraging or enabling these behaviors. Changing those cultures is as important as dealing with individual bad apples and the damage they inflict.

Career inspirations, 1991: “Hackers” and “Wishcraft”

Twenty years ago, I found myself yearning to do something different with my work life. I had been practicing as a public interest lawyer since graduating from law school, and although I liked certain aspects of the work, I didn’t see myself as being a litigation attorney for the rest of my career.

Two pro bono activities sparked my thinking. As a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, I had been elected a shop steward (i.e., union rep) to the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the union for staff attorneys. The experience served as my discovery of the labor movement and worker advocacy, and it had a formative effect on me. We did and said many rash things as union activists, but the union enabled us to bargain for better pay and provided us with a platform for raising social justice issues.

In addition, I was serving as board chair of the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) based at my law school alma mater, New York University. PILF awarded seed-money grants to fledgling public interest law projects, drawn from funds raised from students, alumni/ae, and area law firms. I enjoyed the combination of working with the law student officers of the foundation and blending the tasks of fundraising and grant making. I also learned a heckuva lot about non-profit management and administration.

The needed nudge

However, I was hesitant to move outside of my comfort zone in terms of employment, and I feared that I would have to “start over” if I strayed too far from my credentials as a public interest litigator.


It was around that time that I encountered two books that encouraged me to think more expansively about my career. One was Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984; now in a 25th anniversary 2010 edition). What a great book about the early days of personal computing, starting with students at MIT obsessing over the university mega-computers that occupied entire rooms in the late 50s and early 60s! Hackers goes on to tell stories about the first homebrewed computer clubs, the formation of companies like Apple, and the development of computer games — with plenty of details about the individuals involved.

I was struck by how these computer pioneers were so utterly into what they were doing. Flow and engagement in one’s work…what a treat!


I also got hold of a self-help book, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (1979; now in a 30th anniversary 2009 edition). Wishcraft helps readers identify their strengths and interests and overcome resistances to change, a terrific mix of inspirational and practical advice. It remains one of the best self-help books for people who want to transform their lives.

I don’t think that I worked through every exercise and set of questions in the book, but its basic premise made a strong impact.

NYU Lawyering Program

Inspired in part by these books, I pushed myself to look at opportunities outside of public interest litigation, and the most appealing one was a position as a legal skills instructor in the Lawyering Program at NYU. The Lawyering Program is an innovative, year-long course for new law students that combines instruction in legal research and writing with a series of clinical simulation exercises designed to introduce them to the tasks of interviewing, fact-gathering, negotiation, and advocacy. It is the brainchild of professor Anthony Amsterdam, who has made seminal contributions to civil rights litigation (especially anti-death penalty work) and to clinical legal education.

I applied for the job, and after a series of interviews I was offered a position, which I accepted right away. It was an entry-level, non-tenured instructor position, and I even had to take a small pay cut. It didn’t matter; I loved it and became immediately enamored of teaching. Three years later, I pursued tenure-track appointments and secured my current position at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

Modest yet meaningful transition

Okay, so going from legal practice to law teaching isn’t exactly a radical departure from the norm — presumably I didn’t need to be inspired by computer pioneers and life transformation experts to make the move.

Nevertheless, I thank these books for helping me to ask myself, what do I want to do with my life, and how do I get there? It has led me to a satisfying career that combines teaching and various types of law reform, public education, advocacy activities. There have been bumps along the road, to be sure, but I know that I made the right choice.

In particular, this career has allowed me to invest considerable time and energies into tackling the problem of workplace bullying. I doubt very much that I would’ve created this niche for myself had I not been given the opportunity to do serious research and writing, eventually leading to the drafting of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and extensive contact and collaboration with folks outside of academe.


Given my interests in stopping workplace bullying, this blog often discusses the more difficult and nasty aspects of the work experience. That said, I encourage you, especially if you’ve experienced bullying, abuse, and other mistreatment at work, to ask yourself the same compound question that spurred my change in direction some 20 years ago: What do I want to do with my life, and how do I get there?

The path to a better place may not be easy — in fact, there are no guarantees that smart planning and hard work will get you to where you want to be — but this inquiry is a pretty darn good place to start.

Recycling: Dealing with workplace bullying

Targets of workplace bullying who are weighing their situations and options may find these articles from the blog helpful. Because these posts have appeared over the three-year span of this blog, there is some repetition and overlap in the information and guidance contained in them.

After being bullied at work, what next?

Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes

Possibilities (resources for those considering career shifts)

“Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash

Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder and workplace bullying

No magic answers: “What should I do if I’m bullied at work?”

Should you confront your workplace bully?

A “Cozy” meeting about unpaid internships

l to r: Ross Perlin, Eric Glatt, Tiffany Ap

As some of you know, I’ve been concerned about the widespread practice of unpaid internships for some time.

These positions often exclude those who do not have the financial means to work without pay, thus creating class-based barriers to professions where the practice is very common, such as entertainment, media, the arts, and political advocacy. In addition, my own extensive legal research, published several years ago in a Connecticut Law Review article, led me to conclude that many unpaid internships in the private sector run afoul of minimum wage laws.

Meeting at the Cozy

I’m delighted that this topic finally is getting attention, and last weekend I had the pleasure of being part of an informal lunch meeting with two individuals who are making it happen: Eric Glatt, co-lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures seeking wages for unpaid interns working on the production of “Black Swan”; and Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Very Little in the Brave New Economy (2011).

Joined by journalist and Columbia Journalism School student Tiffany Ap, we met at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger (Broadway & Astor Place — and my favorite New York City diner!) to talk about unpaid internships and how they relate to broader issues of work and economic justice.

Gray area

Internships have occupied a gray area in education and employment relations, standing somewhere between the status of student and that of employee. In reality, however, most interns provide tangible value to their employer, and both ethics and law point to the imperative of paying them for their labor. Thanks in part to folks like Eric and Ross, we’ll be hearing more about this topic in the months and years to come.


Related Posts

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation explores the internship phenomenon

Unpaid interns for “Black Swan” file wage claim against Fox Searchlight Pictures

On the practice and legality of unpaid internships

Does your organization nurture growth-fostering relationships?

Last week’s annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network in New York City featured the presentation of an award (posthumously) to Jean Baker Miller, M.D., a visionary psychiatrist, social activist, and co-founder of relational-cultural theory (RCT).

RCT (link here) holds that:

Growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity. Chronic disconnection, whether on an interpersonal or societal scale, is a primary source of human suffering.

The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women is devoted to transformational personal growth and social justice, building its programs around an RCT model.

Five Good Things

Dr. Miller boiled her core ideas down to a set of “Five Good Things” that empower people in growth-fostering relationships:

1. A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.

2. The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.

3. Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).

4. An increased sense of worth.

5. A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.

So here’s the question: Does your organization nurture these qualities? To further explore this subject, you might take a look at these posts:


For a short report on last week’s HumanDHS workshop:

Building a society that embraces human dignity

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