Staff pay the price for HR’s ambitions

by 14 Nov 2006

While HR focuses on becoming more strategic, research shows it is losing sight of its responsibilities to employees, allowing bullying to flourish. Georgina Fuller reports

A recent report, Dignity at Work, has suggested that HR is reluctant to get involved in resolving conflict until it is absolutely necessary, and that bullying is escalating as a result. The report’s conclusion that HR professionals were moving away from the role of ‘employee champion’ in a bid to become more strategic strikes to the core of Dave Ulrich’s renowned HR business model.

Losing touch?

The changing face of the function, with many HR departments being centralised or moved off site, was contributing to the demise of the “people’s champion”, according to Charlotte Rayner, the report’s author. The increasing levels of employment legislation also mean that HR is encouraged to act more as a legal guardian than to concentrate on pastoral care in the workplace, the study found.

Mandy Telford, project coordinator at the Amicus union, which co-funded the study with the Department of Trade and Industry, said HR was becoming increasingly unreachable to staff. “We were surprised at the general lack of confidence employees had in their HR departments,” she told Personnel Today. “HR is generally associated with the rest of the senior management team rather than as accessible and independent.”

However, Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), disagreed that HR was losing sight of its employee champion responsibilities. “It’s more a case of people being ignorant and employers not understanding the primary reasons for bullying,”she said. “Even as a business partner, you should still be able to nurture and look after your staff.”

Matt Witheridge, operations manager at the Andrea Adams Trust anti-bullying charity, went further, and blamed trade unions for being too complacent in tackling bullying. “There is a big problem with the unions, and employees feel let down by them,” he said. “Unions are not offering members as much support as they could.”

A general lack of training for line managers and union representatives was also a recurrent issue. “Managers are often promoted on their technical abilities without the necessary people-skills training,” Witheridge said.

Part of the problem seems to be that no one is taking responsibility for workplace bullying, and there is serious ambiguity around what exactly constitutes unacceptable behaviour. There also remains a stigma attached to being a bully or being a victim.

“At the moment, everyone is passing the buck as far as bullying is concerned,”Telford said. “Many people think bullying does not happen in certain places, such as the voluntary sector or in churches, but it happens everywhere.”


The report made a number of recommendations on how to prevent bullying, including providing better training to HR specialists to promote dignity at work.

Rayner, a professor of HR management at PortsmouthBusinessSchool, said HR needed to focus more on mediation, conflict management and building relationships with union representatives. “Above all, HR needs to work in partnership with senior managers and unions to address bullying.”

She recommended appointing independent harassment advisers in the workplace to monitor and assess conflict situations. They would report to HR, but remain impartial, so employees would feel they could trust them.

Lynne Duffill, director of HR at regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, agreed that independent advisers were the most effective way of dealing with bullying. “We have a diversity and equality adviser on site, and although he is part of the HR team, our employees know that they can speak to him in confidence and in private,” she said.

Worman said HR’s primary role was to ensure that a strong bullying policy was in place, and that managers and staff understood and complied with it. “The processes are only as good as the people implementing them,” she said. It is essential to try and remove the stigma of bullying and ensure it is dealt with in a sensitive way, she added. “Employees should have the confidence and autonomy to flag up issues before they get out of control.”

It is clear that HR has a significant part to play in determining what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace. But the report concluded that successful initiatives need commitment both from the top of the organisation and the wider workforce.

Unless the leadership demonstrates zero tolerance to bullying and harassment, it is unlikely that managers and employees will consider the issue important.

What are the key aspects of HR's role?

Dave Ulrich, generally considered to be the world's leading HR strategy consultant, defined the key aspects of HR's role in 1997 as: strategic partner (aligning HR and business strategy), administrative expert (re-engineering organisation processes), employee champion (listening and responding to staff) and change agent (managing change and transformation). The employee champion role was subsequently updated last year to incorporate "employee advocate" and "human capital developer".

Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.


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