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 being 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.
To tease out this point, here’s one way to look at things when it comes to bullying at work and HR:
- Good workplace + good HR = Ideal combo, bullying reports likely to be treated fairly. In addition, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in such organizations.
- Good workplace + bad HR = Bullying is still less likely to occur, but when it does, HR may impede a just response, while keeping management out of the loop.
- Bad workplace + good HR = Lousy organizations are petri dishes for bullying. It’s not good for the target or HR. In fact, HR may be bullied if it rallies to help the target.
- Bad workplace + bad HR = Situation very likely hopeless.
If the workplace is unionized, the presence of a supportive union may help to mitigate the harm wrought by bad companies and bad HR. But if a union is in cahoots with bad management, or otherwise doesn’t take bullying seriously, it creates yet another obstacle and threat for the target.
These are the difficult realities of workplace bullying, HR, and organizations, but they must be grasped by targets in order to assess their situations with clarity and understanding.
1. Are HR professionals bullied at work? (2011) — Independently-minded HR officers can be potential bullying targets.
2. Quiet cover-ups (2011) — When HR is complicit in covering up bad behavior.
3. Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010) — A very challenging question.
4. SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation (2010) — Very disappointing.
5. Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010) — HR plays a vital role in the workplace, but workers should not mistakenly regard HR as their ally.
6. “HR was useless” (2009) — Understanding the purposes & loyalties of HR.