Consulting firm urges employers to require workers to report bullying behaviors

There are a lot of folks serving up advice on how to deal with workplace bullying these days. Some appear to know what they’re talking about, and others cause me to think, uh oh, this doesn’t sound right.

Last week, a consulting company sent me their blog column examining what employers should do about workplace bullying (link here). In it, they urge companies to require workers to report bullying activities and imply that discipline would be appropriate for those who do not:

  • “Require reporting – a professional workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Require reporting at all levels, and deal with failures to report appropriately.”

The bulk of the blog post echoes information and advice that many of us have been offering for years, but the “must-report” recommendation raises significant concerns:

  • Won’t such a policy promote reports and complaints of the mildest of slights or uncivil behaviors?
  • There are strategic reasons why a bullying target or bystander witness may wait to report abusive behavior, such as engaging in a job search or completing an initial probationary period of employment. A “must report” policy presumably puts them in violation if they do not act promptly.
  • What does it mean “deal with failures to report appropriately?” Does this mean a fearful bullying target could face discipline or discharge for not reporting the abuse?

A “must-report” policy may sound good on the surface, but upon closer scrutiny it clearly is an idea rife with unwanted consequences.

Here’s another one

The suggestion of a must-report policy is the most concerning, but here’s another one that strikes me as problematic:

  • “Create a culture of trust and accountability. Allow for anonymous reporting, if necessary, and immediately act on complaints filed.”

I’m not sure how anonymous reporting creates a culture of trust and accountability, but in any event, many an HR director or ombuds will tell you that it’s awfully hard to do a fair and thorough investigation based on such reports — especially for a targeted form of mistreatment such as workplace bullying.

And when combined with the must-report policy, anonymous reporting can stoke an organizational culture of suspicion and paranoia.

When hype trumps substance

A subsequent e-mail advisory from the same firm invited me to sign up for an upcoming webinar on workplace bullying & violence for HR folks, led by an attorney. Here’s how they pitched it:

Settlements in bullying cases have been in excess of 1 Million dollars for each instance of bullying and the negative impact on the reputation of the organization can be significant and long term. HR professionals and front line supervisors often do not have the information necessary to curtail bullying and violence before damaging, or disastrous, results occur.

Wow, if only, I can hear bullying targets saying to themselves. A tiny handful of lawsuits for bullying-type behaviors have led to large settlements or verdicts for targets, most of which involved at least some element of discrimination — thus implicating civil rights laws.

In truth, however, successful claims for severe bullying behaviors are few and far between, at least in the U.S. It’s why I’ve written the Healthy Workplace Bill and why citizen advocates across the country are asking legislators to enact it.

In addition, when I speak to employer groups about workplace bullying, I try to be honest by acknowledging that this form of mistreatment often falls outside of the reaches of current employment protections.  Employers should not ignore the liability risks associated with workplace bullying, but frankly their exposure is low-to-moderate compared to other employment claims.

Advising employers on a complex topic

We should encourage pro-active organizational responses to workplace bullying and strive to identify best practices that help to prevent bullying, safeguard bullying targets, and provide for fair, thorough investigations of complaints. Although well-meaning, it’s questionable whether the advice provided by this firm will achieve these objectives.

3 responses

  1. Here’s an idea that the consulting firm may not have thought of: don’t hire psychopaths for supervisory or management positions.

    Instead of promoting smooth-talking impression-managing conscienceless-liars, how about promoting people with integrity for starters? Come to think of it, why not hire politicians and CEOs who have integrity, instead of the deceptive win-at-all-costs me-first psychopaths/sociopaths running the world?

    Guess that would be un-American.

  2. Really don’t see how this will benefit targets of workplace abuse and I agree with Karen that this is adding to the bullying.WBI survey has already shown that reporting bullying no more effective for target than doing nothing. The only way compulsory reporting could work is if the bullying is reported to totally independent body who would then be responsible for investigating the allegations and ensuring that target is not victimised and/or hounded out of their job for reporting the bullying.Otherwise the only ones to benefit will be the bullies. As ‘Been there’ says there are too many psychopaths in positions of power and in my experience HR s only role is to protect the company and individuals reputations not to help the targets.

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