The fine line of bullying: What HR needs to know

by HCA10 Oct 2013

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.

Eve Ash, psychologist and managing director of Seven Dimensions, a consultancy that creates video and online resources for training and leadership, said that in subtle bullying, the hurt, stress and suffering can be just as acute as in overt bullying.

Writing in Smart Company, Ash said subtle bullying is much harder for HR to act upon, and the major issue is really what can be done to prevent bullying, rather than what to do when it occurs.

There remains an inherent potential in all organisations for bullying to occur. Ash commented: “Your people are your most valuable asset, and it is a company's responsibility to exercise a duty of care over its employees, and that includes ensuring that bullying does not take place.”

The steps include highlighting and eliminating bullying that is already taking place, drawing up plans and procedures to follow in the future, educating your staff on how to identify and report on bullying, and communicating the company's bullying policy.

Each of these acts, Ash said, is essential to the smooth running of your organisation. In terms of identifying subtle bullying, Ash highlighted the following key points:

  1. Boundaries shift slowly

Bullying involves a repeated act by an individual or group of people that causes feelings of intimidation or emotional distress to another individual. This can often start out as a bit of a joke, and many good-humoured people will accept a joke at their expense if it's delivered well and in good taste. If it continues beyond the point where the person on the receiving end is good humoured about it you start to move into the area of bullying.

This is also true of intimidator-type behaviour. Whether we are talking about a boss or just the larger personalities in the office, it is very rare that someone actually sets out to be an intimidator. Over time an imbalance of personal power (often due to a loss of confidence on the receiver's side) can be pushed to the point of abuse.

The slow shifting of boundaries means that the victim can often be unaware of just how much pressure they are feeling – it's not until it's too late that action is taken. Bullies by nature will constantly push against the boundaries to exert their influence. This will rarely go away by itself – strong management will ensure that there is push back and recourse against the acts of a bully.

  1. Venting is not bullying

Saying aggressive things in a moment of emotional overflow isn't bullying. It obviously isn't a desirable way to act but it certainly isn't bullying. If you believe that you have gone too far with a particular comment, or perhaps you've embarrassed someone that you work with, the most important thing to do is offer a sincere and prompt apology.

This is an acknowledgment that a boundary has been inadvertently crossed. Mistakes occur, especially in a high-pressure environment, but everyone needs to actively take responsibility of an inter-personal blunder when it happens.

The point to remember about bullying is that it is persistent. It may not be intentionally hurtful, but if boundaries are crossed repeatedly without apology it's extremely serious.

  1. Sometimes people over-react

We all hate to hear about people suffering in the workplace but there is an awkward area of workplace discontent where someone is feeling hurt unreasonably. Some definitions of bullying centre entirely around the feelings of the victim, that if someone is feeling intimated, hurt or harassed then they are definitely being bullied. This isn't always the case! Someone might misread a message – actions can be read as threats and tone of voice read as aggressive when it is neither intended that way nor seen as that from others.

This can be a very difficult situation to manage, but it must be considered a possibility when investigating claims of bullying.

  1. You need a plan in place for bullying

It's very easy to say that your organisation won't accept bullying. It's easy to say that you're not allowed to send threatening emails, swear at co-workers, act in a sexist or racist manner or systematically intimidate someone – but the grey areas are incredibly difficult to navigate. These questions will help you and your HR department prepare for any cases of bullying:

  • How do you deal with a he says/she says scenario?
  • What do you define as bullying within your workplace?
  • If you find someone has been bullied, what do you do? What happens to the bully?


  • by Bernie Althofer 15/05/2012 1:46:03 PM

    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.

  • by Bernie Althofer 16/05/2012 11:43:17 AM

    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.


  • by Richard Greiner 16/05/2012 3:58:56 PM

    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.

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