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The fine line of bullying: What HR needs to know

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HC Online | 10 Oct 2013, 12:00 AM Agree 0
Extreme cases of bullying are headline material, and while overt and systematic bullying may make the 6pm news, the real problem is that the majority of bullying happens on a much more subtle level, according to a leading workplace psychologist.
  • Bernie Althofer | 15 May 2012, 01:46 PM Agree 0
    There has been extensive comment on a number of forums about the 'greyness' of workplace bullying and harassment. Different interpretations, perceptions and understanding along with workplace practices, and levels of tolerance and acceptability all add to the greyness.

    Strategies such as a zero tolerance approach, training managers and supervisors on conflict management and getting individuals to know and understand their workplace rights and responsibilities, along with the changing work health and safety landscape, not only increase the need for HR to 'know' more, but also increases the role that line managers and supervisors have to play.

    It appears that high profile cases are newsworthy, whilst a number of less contentious but still serious incidents end up not be reported or even investigated because of the 'f' factor (fear).

    Whilst many organisations are being proactive in developing and implementing workplace bullying/harassment policies and procedures, there are still workers who seek advice from external sources. In some cases, 'old school' thinking by some managers results in incidents occurring, being investigated and then managers being directed to attend training.

    Incidents, no matter how 'trivial' they may appear to be on the surface need to be investigated, and whilst bullying may not be the real issue behind the complaint, it may arise during the investigation.

    It is important to understand how various systems and processes are related, how the policies and procedures either work together, and to make sure that not only is there is training program in place, but to ensure that regular assessments or audits are conducted to check that people are doing they are supposed to do in relation to detection and prevention.

    Writing a policy and procedure may no longer be sufficient when it comes to defending or responding to allegations. As Eve indicates the grey areas are difficult to navigate, and preparation for the worst case scenario is a key issue that needs to be considered.
  • Bernie Althofer | 16 May 2012, 11:43 AM Agree 0
    There seems to be an ever increasing expectation that HR should not only know more about issues such as bullying, but should also do more. Whilst HR may have a critical role in the overall 'management' of organisational policies and procedures, it seems that in every instance of workplace bullying, there will be a number of people who have key roles. These include the target/victim, the alleged bully, the organisation (Officers and HR, workers, line managers and supervisors), the medical (including suppport personnel) and legal professionals, the friends/associates and family (including bystanders and whistleblowers), the investigators and the media.

    In some cases, the multitude of policies and procedures, along with Codes of Conduct, performance management processes, discipline processes make it difficult to know all there is to know. In some cases, people are busy doing other important parts of their role, and from time to time, emerging risk exposures are overlooked or not addressed. In some cases, it is because of time, and in other cases, it is because there is a lack of knowledge.

    Education is a key part of creating positive workplace behaviours. However, the question remains "How does this occur when there is a significant gap between what is espoused in policy and procedures (or even by the Executive) and what really happens on the ground. Different cultural beliefs, individual generational values and even language play an ever increasing role in creating positive workplace behaviours. Can HR be expected to deliver on all this?

    Perhaps there needs to be change in the way education is conducted in organisation. By this, I mean have less focus on the policy and procedures, but more focus on the types of questions that can and are often asked when an incident either occurs or is reported.

    The issue of workplace bullying is not black or white, but rather various shades of grey. It is important to understand these shades of grey and how and why they might impact on individuals directly or indirectly involved in a workplace bullying incident.

  • Richard Greiner | 16 May 2012, 03:58 PM Agree 0
    If someone says or does something deliberately hurtful to someone else just once, that is bullying or at least it used to be. I accept that certain behaviours only become bullying when done repeatedly, but not all behaviours and not just physical ones.

    As a former military member for nearly twenty years, I've seen it, received it and ashamedly dished some of it out. I've often seen people torn to shreds emotionally from just one event.

    The resultant emotional scars can't be seen and are far more difficult to heal, so perhaps a single event whether deemed 'bullying' or 'harassment' should be treated with equal seriousness.
  • Damien Sloane | 17 May 2012, 10:33 AM Agree 0
    Both the original article and comments highlight some of the complexities that can arise around what might lead to allegations and how an investigation might proceed. I agree with the premise that most people come to work without any intention to bully, harass, intimidate or discriminate but I think even for one offs, where a complaint is received it has to be examined under due process. I also think that when a complaint is received that the complainant needs to understand that their behaviour and reactions will also be scrutinised.asonsuca sheets.
  • Bernie Althofer | 17 May 2012, 11:50 AM Agree 0
    It seems that in some cases, there is a belief that 'bullying' has to be repeated behaviours, whilst others believe that a single incident can also be called bullying. One of the issues involved in the discussion is about understanding what is bullying and what is harassment as the words are often used inter-changeably, but do have different meanings.

    It is important to investigate single incidents as they may form part of a pattern i.e. one type of behaviour used today, another tomorrow and so it goes on.

    In some cases perception plays a key part so that as some seem to suggest, that if an individual perceives they are being bullied, they are being bullied. However, every incident needs to be investigated and assessments on its merits.

    As a former Harassment Referral Officer, and even as a consultant, it never ceases to amaze me that people involved in a workplace bullying incident don't think that they will be put under the spotlight. This is the most difficult part of providing advice to a person being subjected to any form of bullying or harassment. It is one thing to explain the resolution options available, but it another explaining that they will be subjected to scrutiny as the organisation and even the alleged bully will try and 'blame' them for their predicament. Over the years, most of those I have spoken to have not understood the types of questions they can and should ask, the questions they will be subjected to by investigators, colleagues, line managers and others(even by legal professionals) . In some cases, they have not considered the types of issues that could be raised e.g. previously diagnosed and treated psychological conditions.

    People are generally unprepared for the day they will become involved in a workplace bullying incident, so when it happens, they have little supporting evidence e.g. notes recording who said or did what, who was present, comments, etc, and in some expect that support personnel will 'sort the problem out' for them. In other cases, line managers and supervisors have little training in how to investigate workplace bullying incidents, so the matter is passed over to HR.

    There is an ever increasing risk of allegations being made in the workplace and it is important to maintain currency of knowledge about Court, Commission and Tribunal decisions regarding these issues.
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