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:
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.