HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target

Team Of Three Orange People Holding Hands And Standing On Blue Puzzle Pieces, With One Man Reaching Out To Connect Another To Their Group Clipart Illustration Graphic

(Image courtesy of

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.


Related post

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (2017)


This post was revised in July 2019.

15 responses

  1. Good article. I know, firsthand that I had a union rep that was in cahoots with management, specifically my boss who, may I add, was the top boss of the whole school department and was in cahoots with the chair of the school committee… that was a no win situation.

  2. PS: In my previous position, I was the executive assistant to the Sr. VP of Human Resources. I know exactly what goes on behind the closed door.

  3. Good article. If anything, David is too gentle with HR departments, that gang of management shills that have cheerfully carried out sentences of economic capital punishment on hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working people It took a while, but after decades of working in HR with its cast of overpaid, conceited, coddled, unproductive vampires, I finally made a career change just before my fiftieth birthday. There may be a few good HR people out there, but be assured that the SHRM-ites will eventually trample them with their usual sadistic glee.

    • We need more people like you Marcia! I was abused in the workplace and complained to an HR person. I was shocked by how the whole situation was handled by this HR person. I wound up losing my job. I would not recommend an HR person to anyone in an organization who has complaints or concerned about workplace bullying. Maybe if more people make career changes and refuse to “go along” with current HR practices, the field might change. However, I think what we really need are new laws against workplace bullying.

  4. I saw what happened to targets before me at my workplace who complained to HR…HR found no wrong doing and the situation went from bad to worse for the target. I decided not to go to HR until I was ready to walk; I already had it bad as it was and couldn’t see myself being able to tolerate more abuse. Thanks to you and WBI for educating targets on this subject. The notion that Human Resources will protect an employee from bullying by a manager is a myth.

  5. I worked in sector where recruitment and retention were identified problems….but the HR response to both informal and formal complaints under the Respectful Workplace Policy was thoroughly inadequate and explicitly violated the policy. Human resources treated employees as irrelevant irritants undeserving of consideration…which may well have lead to the chronic staffing issues that persist despite an abundance of rewarding work to be done. Any employee unwilling to put up with deplorable (but easily remedied) working conditions who complained was disposed of in one way or another. Resultant vacancies (if/when filled) go to applicants who rarely meet the posted qualifications.

  6. In the toxic workplace I was in, there isn’t an HR department. One’s only recourse is to appeal to the Board of Directors, which I did, to no avail.

    There is a clause in the workplace’s policy that states that employees can meet with members of the board without having to request permission to do so from management, nor is it required that management have knowledge of employees’ meeting with the board.

    When I asked the president of the board if a few of the employees could meet with him/them, as stated in the policy, he said that he was not familiar with that clause and would have to look into it.

    I asked him to keep my conversation with him private and that there were at least two, perhaps three, other employees not including me, who would be willing to meet with him/them.

    I never heard back from this president, and the other employees went deeper into ‘people pleasing’ behavior out of fear.

    I, personally, think that the ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘don’t cry in your soup’, ‘toughen up’ are all precepts of rugged individualism whereby it is up to us to adapt in order to survive or fail.

    These introjected messages are alive and well in Western culture and can be breeding grounds for psychic warfare, if you will, on specific segments of the population, especially those who threaten the status quo by embracing a more egalitarian worldview.

  7. Yes. All true. In organizations where the contract does not have language to address hostile work environments, bullying etc. , what incentive is there for HR to react when legally they staff person is unprotected, especially if caucasian and does not have “protected group” status. As the mayoral debates stated tonight, racism is alive and well in Boston. My talented, highly qualified colleagues lost their jobs because they were white. HR knows, knew they could not claim discrimination under the law. The MHWPB provides for equal rights for all people. Who could be against this???

    • Torrii – this exactly happened to me, as a non-protected status employee, I was bullied for years by a woman who used the protected class status of race to her advantage while management just turned a blind-eye to her treatment of me, which, depending on her mood that day, would range from throwing papers down in front of me, snarky, sarcastic verbal comments, shoving me while I was standing at the printer, shouting across the office at me, as well as numerous passive-aggressive behaviors done in a covert way so as not to draw attention. I had to bite my tongue and just sit there and take it from her since she would have turned the tables on me by claiming I was harassing her based on race. Finally, when I had enough of her b.s., I asked our manager to address the bullying problem, his reply to me was, “What do you want me to do about it?”. The culture of fear of discrimination and harassment lawsuits based on race or other protected status is epidemic in corporate America. It all boils down to which is more costly for them — losing a talented employee or facing a lawsuit in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      Oh, and by the way, this all went on in the legal dept. of a Fortune 500 company!

  8. I am of the protected class, I reported my son’s ( RN) boss of making discriminatory remarks about Cape Verdeans’..As a result she came to me and told me she was gonna cut my sons balls off, and essentially she did..A mobbing/targeting took place..he lost his job..I got involved with the Healthy Work Place Bill not only for those w/ protection, but for those who have very little recourse.. Even being of the protected class he got fired.. Hopefully this Bill gets passed..

  9. It is not easy being in Human Resources. You will encounter many difficult situations and have to make many hard decisions. It is a serious responsibility and performing at a poor level can have a major impact on the company. It is a shame to see that many companies across the nation have employees that experience bullying. This is not something to be taken lightly and it is the responsibility of the human resources department to handle this situation thoroughly and properly.

  10. I could have wrote this article. I had over 23 years perfect employment never once walked in the doors of HR, until a new V.P. had issues with me. I was written up for the fist time in over 23 years and it was provable lies. I appealed to HR where they treated me exactly as the article states. Long story short he was made to give my accounts back “I was in sales” then the retaliation and bullying started. I lasted 4 months, then had a nervous breakdown over what he did on a daily basis, with HR’s backing and even got other employees into his pack, who I’m sure were afraid to do anything but. And this is a fortune 500 company. I remember when I walked through the doors of HR, I even said to the “lady” I’m really nervous, in over 23 years I have never walked through these doors and some of what I have heard is scary. She immediately squashed everything “oh I hear that all the time and I don’t know why” we are hear for you. Here for me, 4 months later my $100,000. plus a year job was gone. So much more, then this but I wanted to validate this article it hit right on with me.

    • I wish that scenarios like this weren’t so recognizable that someone like you could find this blog entry and say how closely it mirrors your experience. I hope that you are managing okay in the aftermath of this experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: