It’s a recurring story, but sadly worth sharing: A worker who is enduring severe bullying at work confides in a human resources professional and spells out in detail everything that is going on. The HR person seems to be truly listening, nodding at the right times, and exuding concern and empathy when tears flow. At the end of the meeting, the HR person promises to get back to the employee, perhaps with a report or a follow up plan of action.
A few days or weeks later, the HR person responds with a meeting or memo in which the bullied employee is told that they’ve found no inappropriate behavior. The response may include any number of lies or distortions. In some cases, the tables will have turned, and it will be the targeted worker who is feeling scrutinized.
Earlier this week, I heard from someone with a story largely along the lines described above. For various reasons, I trust the individual who provided it. This person even had some legal issues worth raising, which sadly isn’t the case in many bullying situations.
For me this was the latest example of a bullying target who was looking for a lifeline, but instead was tossed under the bus, with HR supporting their demise.
The role of HR
Unfortunately, HR is often complicit in some of the worst workplace bullying situations. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular articles:
In good and bad workplaces alike, HR answers to top management, not to individual employees. Too many well-meaning team players have learned that lesson painfully, thinking that a seemingly empathetic HR manager is a sort of confidante or counselor. There are plenty of good, supportive HR people out there, but ultimately their job is to support the employer’s hiring and personnel practices and interests.
Mixing and matching
To tease out this point, here’s one way to look at things when it comes to bullying at work and HR:
1. Good workplace + good HR
Obviously this is the gold standard. First off, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in good organizations. Secondly, if allegations of bullying do arise, then they are much more likely to get prompt attention by a fair-minded HR office.
2. Good workplace + bad HR
With this combination, bullying is still less likely to occur. However, if it does happen, HR may impede or frustrate a proper and just response.
3. Bad workplace + good HR
We know that lousy organizations are petri dishes for bullying. It’s not good for the target or HR. In fact, it’s possible that HR may be bullied if it supports the target. Conscientious HR practitioners often face terrible ethical dilemmas when they are expected to do some of the dirty work of bad management.
4. Bad workplace + bad HR
Unfortunately, this scenario carries little hope for a positive internal resolution. It’s not exactly a daring hypothesis to say that this combination represents the lion’s share of distressing stories we hear about a worker being ignored or retaliated against after reporting bullying behaviors to HR. Here is where HR is most likely to be complicit in the mistreatment.
Successful HR interventions
As I wrote in another entry, I cannot “cite a ‘poster case’ example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.” However, I said that they must exist, adding that “successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known.” Indeed, I wish we knew more about these ethical success stories.
In sum: HR answers to top management, not to individual workers. When it comes to dealing with workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, that may be a good or bad thing, depending upon the ethical values of the organization. These are among the challenging realities of workplace bullying, HR, and organizations, but they must be grasped in order to understand the dynamics of modern work abuse.
This post was revised in July 2019.