Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue?

“Never fear, HR is here”??? (Image courtesy of clipartkid.com)

Over the weekend I was talking with a good friend about the roles that human resources offices play in responding to potential workplace bullying situations. We shared the observation that despite our considerable knowledge of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we could not cite a “poster case” example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.

This is not meant to be a snarky putdown of HR or the central role it plays in modern organizations. It’s just that stories of HR intervening on behalf of a bullied or mobbed employee, especially when the perpetrators are powerful individuals within the organization, appear to be rare. By contrast, we hear a lot of anguished tales about how “HR was useless,” “HR threw me under the bus,” and “HR protected the bullies.” In the worst instances, HR has actively furthered, supported, and enabled the abuse.

That said, I think it’s important to correct or at least soften this narrative if stories of positive HR intervention are out there, as they must be. After all, successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known. I invite readers to contribute their stories of being helped and protected by HR in bullying or mobbing situations in the comments.

***

In a later post, I’ll list and discuss some helpful resources for organizations that want to empower their HR offices to prevent and respond to workplace abuse situations in proactive and ethical ways.

21 responses

  1. My experience is that the HR function is no longer designed to manage such issues. They generally don’t have the mandate or the skills to intervene effectively. In recent times, HR appears to have taken on a more operational role rather than an employee relations role. Benefits administration, payroll, onboarding, compliance, etc. are more dominant functions in the corporate world. They report to upper management who are not connected to employee issues. When learning of such issues, HR often turns to OD for team building and other group interventions rather than addressing the real problem. EEO officers, union reps, and EAP (often contract and external to the organization) bear the brunt of the complaints and generally have limited power to intervene or effect change.

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  3. Some HR departments also seem to think that the most effective way to deal with the bully is to remove them from the situation – as in moving them to another job or another part of the organization. That works to a limited degree, but if there is no action taken with the bully to address their behaviour, it’s entirely possible that s/he will continue their behaviour….just in a different setting. And if the bully ends up in a “better” position or area than they were before, that sends a very negative message to the rest of the organization.

  4. As a former HR exec for many years (attorney and professor) this is a complex situation that starts with what HR is and does in your organization. HR’s role and the skills of the HR staff vary in the extreme from organization to organization – from a focus on basic transactional functions requiring clerical skills to high level strategic functions requiring advanced degrees (MBA, JD, PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology and the like). At the core this means that some people are more equipped to address workplace situations and some people are in positions that have the authority to address workplace situations. The combination of skillset and authority is far from a given in typical HR roles.

    However, one constant is that HR’s purpose is to serve the organization, not the individual. That does NOT mean the business is more important or valued than humans. It DOES mean the HR’s function is to help ensure the success of an organization through whatever programs and functions HR has been tasked with in that organization. That also does not mean HR ignores bullies or other offensive behavior, but it does mean HR’s role is, in collaboration with supervisors & management, to implement company policy (and in collaboration with council, the law) regarding unacceptable behavior.

    The first challenge for an alleged victim is to clarify their goals for reaching out to HR, and then identify if their HR does in fact have the skill set and assigned role to facilitate those goals. If not, the individual is likely better off contacting employee assistance if one is provided.

    I have many examples of HR being helpful to and supporting employees who are being mistreated. Most, however, are not quick fixes as HR’s power (when in a strategic role) is in holding managers to performance systems that document good and not good behavior as well as skills and achievements; enforcing company policies and practices that include discipline “up to and including immediate termination” for certain offenses; and consistency in implementing those policies and practices.

    • I realize that the HR function has a specific mandate and authority within an organization, and that the skill set of HR employees may vary differently across organizations and even within a single organization. However, I would argue that HR cannot serve the organization if it cannot serve the individuals that constitute that organization. If all an HR department can do in a situation of bullying is refer an employee to employee assistance (if that is even available) then that lack of capacity will ultimately affect the organization’s performance and its ability to achieve its strategic goals.

      • I watched my department director run off staff over a three month period whose replacement cost would be half a million dollars. Before I left I met with HR to complain about them. I think it was two years later and and at least a million in additional costs before they were moved out of leadership to a support role. There were safety risks, organizational reputation, and moral costs that were additional factors. Amazing how all this could go on for years.

    • I really appreciate your reply as it succinctly explains the way it is. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not.

      I would venture to guess that most employees (I was one of them) do not have the abilities to “clarify their goals for reaching out to HR, and then identify if their HR does in fact have the skill set and assigned role to facilitate those goals.” How could we when most of us – until the abuse occurred – thought that if one worked hard and followed the stated rules, it would all work out OK. After all, we are taught to believe truth and fairness matters. Now I know differently.

      Final thought: Employees should utilize caution when using employee assistance programs. It’s really important to find a therapist who understands the dynamics and facets of work abuse.

  5. Unfortunately, in the more recent past, HR has thrown colleagues ‘under the bus’, even when the perpetrator was forced to settle lawsuits. And she was actually made manager of several additional departments.many more of us quit. In the distant past, when we had ‘personnel’ offices, it seemed more supportive.

  6. HR both helped me and threw me under the bus. Since they had no policy to hold
    people accountable for their words and actions toward fellow employees and felt their hands were tired to do anything but talk to the bully about boundaries, they came out with a very well organized training curriculum that all employees had to read, test on, and sign off on. Then they had recourse for holding people accountable and writing people up when complaints were made. But they also made it subtly clear that since they believed complaints made were legally considered allegations, they would protect their employees when allegations were made against them-and in my case that put burden of proof on me and thebully knew she could continue since their were no witnesses willing to put themselves on the line to corroborate my complaints. I ended up leaving a job I loved and thrived in because the bully knew she had me over a barrel. Very sad.

  7. We don’t nickname HR the hospital KGB for nothing. Your statement that it is very rare to find a case where HR intervened especially if the bully was in a position of power says it all. In that case HR must have had an exorcism performed to drive away evil spirits.

  8. Hi, @ Laura. My name is Daisy. I dealt with workplace mobbing for 12 years. Its psychological abuse and inhuman. When I tried to do something about, it turned against me and hr did nothing to protect me from the harassment and malicious gossip. I think you are looking at things from a one sided perspective. If you look around, point us all into the right direction because I have not heard of any special accolades earned by companies in combatting workplace mobbing otherwise if they did, we’d all have our jobs and workplace mobbing would be foreign terms to us, and let’s not forget there’d be less suicides happening. I was falsely accused of a crime for which I didn’t commit. They never bothered to look at the evidence nor pursue the truth. If it weren’t for the help of a US Marshall, I’d be serving time unjustly for something I never did. In the end I was cleared of everything, but they never reinstated my job and management disclosed unnecessary false information which instigated slander, gossip, loss of respect from many friends and coworkers, it consequently created anger in many people, there were threats and sadly it deprived me from many work opportunities. I did my job fairly without complaints, I achieved many awards, I was mindful of other people’s lives, and I cooperated with my managers and peers with great respect. My privacy was also invaded. All it took was a false story and a false perception and all of a sudden I was almost serving time in a federal state prison for something I didn’t do. You’re wrong about something. Its selfish to say its always about an organization because if there is truth in that, you’re forgetting that we are consumers and as people….we are a part of the organization because it is kind of like a symbiotic relationship. An organization wouldn’t be just that without its foundation which are its employees and its consumers, each benefitting from one another. It is very crucial you understand that as an HR representative, in your hands is the future of many people, people who were told and assured that if someone is disrespectful or if they are being harassed let alone threatened, that you’d at least neutralize the situation. I owned a credit card for the company I worked for and had it established for as long as I’ve worked there and in good standing. If I was a thief, I’d would’ve had an extensive criminal history, which if I’m sure I do recall they are all required by law to obtain a criminal background check. Again, I am a consumer not just an employee. I believe you are fair in saying that some issues are complex, but they must never be dismissed. Looking at it from a bigger picture, there are no laws to protect us from anything like workplace mobbing. Its far worse than an actual cancer that kills a human being, that if not rectified on time, it can create far more damage than you think, in some instances death. Because you have no idea the horrible nightmare I lived with because the greatest privilege anyone can ever have is our right to live and our freedom, and my freedom was almost taken from me and there are people out there who have lied unjustly to also deprive me of my rights. I can almost say its like our workplaces have become like our government, morality and truth are always obsolete and the corrupt always win. The only silver lining I see behind such an unfortunate event, is that its made me more resilient, stronger, and tolerant for those who failed to speak the truth, forgiveness for those who laughed and mercilessly joined others hinder my progress in life, understanding for those who believed in the false stories being spread about me, and having compassion for those who covertly minced the truth with lies to damage my prestige because they had no compassion for me. Its OK to dislike someone, but when you lie with intent of not caring if that person faces time behind bars and you have to recruit people to drive that person to kill themselves….that’s inhuman and goes to show there’s dangers within our own work environments that mustn’t be ignored.

    • Adding to my last post, they did prosecute the person who really did commit the crime further clearing me of any wrongdoing.

  9. Reblogged this on bullying in the workplace and commented:
    This topic is discussed in my study on bullying in the workplace. For those interested this is a good blog to follow by David Yamada. Please look to the upper right and select subscribe.

    Whose side is HR on? This is not a difficult question when you understand who works for who. HR works for the employers, period. The rules and policies they follow are from the employer, yes HR helps and develops them, but under the guidance of the employer and following what ever state and federal laws are in place. Please understand, HR is not violating any laws, they are just staying within their realm. Can they do more, YES! YES! They are the holders of information that can share to their employer the impacts and costs to the company. HR can offer solutions. They are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to bullying, but they also know the difference between right and wrong. In my study and in a large percentage of my readings, HR is not helping to make changes within organizations. Now I am not saying that all HRs are bad, no I am not saying that. But I do think they are the ones to help make the change within organization. My mind still boggles me as to why organizations have not stepped up and put policies in place. I am looking forward to reading more from Mr. Yamada.

    I will be looking for more discussion and future postings on this topic.

  10. If we accept that HR knows right from wrong then they have watched many wrongs. Countless carreers harmed or destroyed. Defamation and wrongful termination. Bullying and harassment. Accountability? Conscience? What do they discuss at their conferences? I know factually that professional organizations in healthcare avoid these topics like the plague. I have years of correspondence . Often one way, ignored. Broken promises. Inaction. These a form of abuse in itself.

  11. My reputation was ruined through rumors whereas as I mentioned, they’ve done nothing. Let’s not forget that these mobbing campaigns continue outside of work. I was defamed and slandered severely and wrongfully terminated for something that someone else did. As I stated, please show us all of any special accolades achieved by HR in combatting workplace harassment and mobbing. If they did, more people would have their jobs and actions like termination would seldom be executed on the wrong people, while terms like workplace mobbing would be nonexistent, and others wouldn’t be driven into suicide as an option. I’m starting to consider that HR and organizations are ‘Gaslighting’ these things. If they knew right from wrong, why didn’t they perform computer forensics on my computer or bother to review my intact work history or pursue any evidence that was crucial or why the hell would they need to fire others based on a number of complaints where their comments have no substance. Anyone can say that Jane Doe is a pedophile and John Doe is a con artist or that a certain person is sexually harassing another. All it takes is convincing 20-40 people to make a false complaint and it’s enough to end a persons reputation and career. If you don’t believe me, let’s refer this project over to Harvard students and I can prove to you how easy and gullible people can be at believing a false truth and how far the damage will go before someone actually decides to openly pursue their own truth. Thereafter, the aftermath is….invasion of privacy, depression and anxiety, discrediting, stalking, interfering in job offers as well as family, friends, coworkers, harassment, threats, interference of any opportunities for relationships with others, libel, slander, malicious gossip, and more false stories. I’m not going to discredit Human resources as I’m sure there are a few good out there with more altruism in their veins than those poorly influenced by what others think or say and living in mediocracy, but if I ever felt compassion for people who were exposed to helplessness within their jobs during my tenure, now that I am one of the many people combatting social and work injustices I feel more compassion and empowerment for those who fell victims to this. At times I feel like HR is more like those who have failed to help those who have suffered from school bullying. Counselors and teachers may at times not do much until it’s too late. Let me give you a perfectly good example, people often came forward to confide in me about being mistreated because they were new on the job or performance wasn’t so grand so they were treated miserably. I observed the morality decline and I told people to refer what was bothering to HR. They told me they wouldn’t because they knew they would lose their jobs. And those that did follow my advice and were chivalrous enough to complain about something, ended up losing their jobs or ended up quitting due to the pressure. People need to believe in their own self worth and defend their beliefs and know that no person no matter who they are in society or within an organization, cannot have power over them nor I myself. One must always fight and defend their own truth and never settle for others’ demoralizing opinions or statements. Look at the situation with Wells Fargo. It’s a prime example of workplace corruption and injustice whereas HR showed an absence. People who didn’t want to give in were either fired or forced to resign. It took years and years but those with more power within their position were finally punished which goes to show that power and money doesn’t last long but patience, perseverance, and truth will always prevail. It did ruin many peoples’ lives especially those who took part in the whole scheme. Where was HR to the rescue in any of these examples? I was fortunate in life to work with amazing people and managers, and sadly these relationships have been permanently severed due to misunderstandings and defamatory accusations, but they will always have my respect because they will never know personally how greatful I was for the collaboration and amazing opportunity I had with working with them. I see this as a big issue and an opportunity for many people around the world. Prince William mentioned it himself that we need a better and healthier emphasis within our work environments. It’s not until those who have power or those within HR, find themselves in the same predicament; will you honestly ever see or ever comprehend the real damage that most people are struggling with. I’m not happy that this happened to me, but I feel happy that although I may have lost so much in life; I’m still alive, I still love and respect my coworkers and managers, I have more compassion than I did before for those who hurt me so much in life, and I’m beyond happy that I was still able to find happiness in times of darkness and chaos. If I ever needed a reason to change vocation to something else, I’d say this would be it, because I DO think there’s a missing opportunity here and people should never have to go through with what I or others have gone through.

  12. I have been repeatedly disappointed by HR. They have failed to meet even the minimum standards of investigation and support, as set out in their very own policy and standards. Recently, HR apologized for failing to support me. They promised me a full investigation will take place. I believe this change in approach is due to a high profile case of harassment in a related organization, which has drawn a lot of media attention.
    My hopes were high and for the first time in several years, I felt that fairness and truth might be just around the corner. And then, boom, HR started backtracking. I do not know how things will end up. I am trying to maintain a shred of hope, but it seems that I am in an abusive relationship with HR itself. False promises, victim blaming, silence, and with one HR employee, her full participation in the mobbing.
    I have come to believe that most of the HR staff I have dealt with lack the skill set to do this part, investigation and support, of their job with any measure of competence. Even if the will is there. They do not understand mobbing. They do not understand the use of social media in mobbing. They do not understand the legalities of the company’s responsibility. They do not understand privacy laws. They do not understand the harm done to the health of the one being mobbed.
    While we have various experts available, it is such a fractured and siloed approach, that it endlessly starts and stops and goes back, and takes baby steps, and waits seven weeks to speak to another expert who is juggling too much work to do a good job.
    I agree with most of what Miss Daisy said. I fear that at the end of the day, the fictional and factional narrative of the mob will be adopted, if not believed. Far easier for HR to get rid of one than deal with the reality of a toxic workplace that manufactures and promotes and embraces alternative facts, and those whose careers are built on the very same lies and manipulations.

    • I want you to know that you’re not alone. There’s so much more of us out there than you think. Never give up and under any circumstances….and never ever be afraid. 20 peoples opinions cannot account for the unaccounted opinions of the billions of people out there. Remember that no one can have power over you, not even lies and harassment. Good things come from bad events in our lives. They empower us to do something not just for ourselves, but for many people. There will come a time where so many people will get fed up, that it will be brought to the fore and organizations must review policies on work ethics and restructure them to accommodate a whole new level of handling, neutralizing, and basically using our own wit to combat workplace mobbing because it is a form of psychological abuse. They must also restructure and change their perception as well as taking on a much different approach on mobbing. Stress on the body overtime causes immune deterioration and chronic inflammation and psychological issues. I’ve not as of yet heard of any organizations working or investing the time to train and introduce policies and training on workplace mobbing. Companies need hr personnel with a background expansive knowledge and degrees on psychiatry because those that know or at least have some knowledge, will have a better grasp of the situation if they can differentiate liars, from sociopaths, to other complex psychological issues that are obviously interfering with a healthy work environment let alone collaboration amongst peers. I intend to spread as much awareness about mobbing and intend to put something together on combatting it. My goal is to cascade the effects it has on a human being, give people hope, and an opportunity to use bad situations including manipulative people to your advantage. Because let’s get one thing straight, if an employee has to drive you to the brink of suicide, fear, depression and to the point that they must recruit others to make you suffer, use covert emotional manipulation and other malevolent tactics to hinder let alone deprive another of their ability to take on a job as well as progress, then I’d say these people need help….and those that cannot see let alone ignore such behaviors are already morally corrupt or willfully blind and are just as bad as those that instigate the harm. Social Awareness is something that must be introduced to many large organizations as well. Social Awareness allows us to be fully aware of recognizing potential red flags in our social settings and by doing so, allows one the opportunity to decide tactfully how to handle let alone work or talk to those with manipulative tactics, those with an inferior superior complex, those with skewed perceptions, the gossip types, and overall all sorts of people. Nobody ever talks about social behavior analysis in organizations though they should, but I personally had to read and educate myself as much as possible on the topics and it all made sense to me because nobody is really recognizing the behavioral/ psychological health hazards and what or how this may hinder interaction with others which may lead to immorality, corruption, hostility, and other obvious factors discussed previously. I realized after I was separated from the company, that if people of power or hr personnel would do nothing to protect me, then I want to know how to handle it myself. So I read so much about Social Behaviors, Social Awareness, different psychological disorders, everything from immunobiology to really being more consciously aware of people’s words and behaviors and really learning how or what to do next and special tactics to handle these types of people. It gave me empowerment and self confidence and more importantly a peace of mind because I was in control handling external mobbing campaigns with diplomacy and perseverance. Meditation is something I’d recommend. Sounds very, meh….but meditation is widely used by companies like google and Facebook as well as many people around the world and I now know why. It completely restores you but makes you emotionally and mentally stronger and more consciously aware of your surroundings, it grounds you, you eventually to look at your obstacles as opportunities, and you view things from an expansive perspective. As someone who dealt with a lot of this….and by this I mean I also dealt with school bullying for many years not just workplace mobbing….try meditation….not yoga, just meditation because your life and your health are more important than anything in this world. Again, please remember you really aren’t alone, nor will you ever be in life.

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