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Beating the bully: What is HR’s role?

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BullyingDespite the bad publicity, formal policies and government-backed schemes, bullying and harassment is still prevalent in the workplace. Now, as ‘Ban Bullying at Work Day’ approaches, Verity Gough asks why HR’s head still seems to be stuck in the sand.



Harassment and workplace bullying is destructive, costly and damaging to all parties concerned. But despite its negative effects, latest figures suggest it is actually on the rise.

A recent poll of 1,000 employees by law firm Peninsula found the number of registered bullying incidents had risen from 52% to 69% over the last five years, while evidence from Unite Union found that around one in four people will experience workplace bullying at some point in their lives.

So why, despite the policies put in place to help curb this issue, is HR failing to stamp out bullying?

Conflicting roles

“HR is there to create diversity and ensure the organisation doesn’t become mono – mono nationality, mono race, mono attitude.”

Lisette Howlett, MLH Consulting

The first stumbling block to contend with is the fact that HR is essentially playing a dual role, says Lisette Howlett, founder of global HR consultancy MLH Consulting and recruitment company Hire Scores. “HR has an obligation to protect the organisation from claims while also ensuring that employees can come to them in confidence if they have a complaint, and be taken seriously,” she explains.

Yet, this is often not the case. For many employees, HR is seen as rigid and inflexible, delivering policies and protecting the organisation from troublesome staff. Howlett feels it’s time for HR to reveal its softer side. “We are there to create diversity and ensure the organisation doesn’t become mono – mono nationality, mono race, mono attitude. It’s about striking a balance,” she says.

Hugh Robertson, health and safety director at the TUC, agrees. “Employees often feel HR will protect the manager and move the staff, rather than address the issue,” he says. “Sadly, evidence and experience shows this is often the case. They need to increase the confidence of workers to approach them in the first place.”

The zero tolerance approach

Yet, if the figures from a report by trade union Amicus are anything to go by, organisations are still a long way off from finding this essential middle ground. According to its study, only 2% of employers take a zero tolerance approach to bullying, while 97% of organisations have never even quantified the destructive impact of such behaviour.

But it’s not all bad news. There are firms making strides in tackling workplace bullying by simply adopting a zero tolerance approach. BT is among those and has been operating a number of anti-bullying campaigns since the late 1990s. In 2005, it implemented the ‘Let’s Cut it Out!’ programme to engage employees and highlight what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable. For example, it runs a regular employee survey to try to get their thoughts on bullying.

“Employees often feel HR will protect the manager and move the staff, rather than address the issue. Sadly, evidence and experience shows this is often the case.”

Hugh Robertson, TUC

However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach but a multi-channel programme. As part of its onboarding process, employees are introduced to BT’s policies through video and discussions, as well as working with the different areas of the organisation to tailor the anti-bullying message. “It’s not as simple as ‘problem A needs solution A’; it’s much more complicated than that,” says BT’s people and policy manager, Sally Ward.

“You have to have policies and procedures in place to protect the individual and the organisation, but when someone comes forward and says they have been bullied the solution may be a combination of several approaches which the HR business partners can draw on.”

To this end, Ward and her team run ‘ethics workshops’, where members of the HR community come together to discuss the possible outcomes of pertinent issues such as bullying and harassment. They can also use the research to identify any trends in behaviour. In fact, says Ward, they are now able to discern different types of bullying and ways in which to deal with them.

“Initially, we were very focused on bullying between a manager and an individual, and visa versa,” she says. “Now we are seeing what we call lateral bullying, where the intimidation is happening either by people outside the organisation or from another group within.

“It’s all about acceptable levels of behaviour and being clear about what we as an employer expect from our staff and associates.”

Dealing with the bullies

Howlett agrees that while a zero tolerance approach is definitely a step in the right direction, HR should be concentrating on doing more during the initial stages of an employee’s professional life to ensure the right patterns of behaviour are implemented from the start.

“The way we want to behave towards each other, the way we want to be managed and the way we want to work is actually something HR can set off from the corporate induction,” she says. “While most organisations do a certain amount of induction training in line with their legal obligations, HR can very quickly wrap some of the minimal behaviours, such as the company’s code of conduct, alongside some of the basic health and safety training. It provides a nice entry into the more important diversity pieces.”

It is also key to offer employees as many routes as possible to discuss what might be happening to them. For example, Ward says BT staff can call a confidential helpline and access policies on diversity and harassment through the company intranet if they don’t want to speak to someone face-to-face in the first instance.

The most important thing of all, however, is getting companies to acknowledge there may be a bullying problem in the company and nip it in the bud, rather than paying lip service to the issue and propagating the problem. And it’s not just about avoiding hefty costs should companies find themselves on the wrong side of the law. “We believe it is not acceptable to use bullying behaviour to do your job,” says Ward.

“There is a fine line between strong leadership management style and bullying behaviour. We can help people understand that they have crossed the line and it’s not acceptable. As HR, it is our role to be vigilant.”


Workplace bullying: The facts

  • 40% of UK organisations still do not have an effective policy.

  • The effects of bullying are estimated to be responsible for between one third to a half of all stress related illnesses – a cost of around £12 billion.

  • 18.9 million working days are lost each year as a direct result of bullying, costing the UK economy £6 billion.

  • As a result, 30 times more days are lost to industry than those lost through industrial disputes.

  • 3.6% of salary budgets (national average) is paid to people absent from work due to stress-related illness.

  • 93.1% of all personnel practitioners say that bullying is occurring in their own organisations.

  • 82.2% say that weakness in management is the prime reason for bullying.

  • 92% of workers in a recent survey reported that they are currently being bullied.

  • 49% of those indicated that their immediate manager was the bully.

  • 47.8% stated that procedures weren’t followed correctly, once a formal complaint was lodged.
  • Source: Andrea Adams Trust


    Verity Gough is an award-winning writer for HRZone.co.uk

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