Being a Human Resources Professional (HRP) is a challenging role. It is often contradictory and HRPs must walk the line between protecting and representing the needs of the employer or organisation, and management and employees. Their ability to act and influence can often be compromised by their own level of power depending on the priorities and values of their employer and executive management.

However, while they can be restricted at a higher level, HRPs can have a significant impact on micro workplace interactions; and this can particularly be the case in relation to bullying. Their impact can be positive or negative, but that outcome can be significantly influenced by their own biases and stigmatisation.

In this article, we explore a recently released research paper the investigates HRP bias and stigmatisation in relation to workplace bullying.

Assigning Personal Responsibility and Impact of Emotions

The research paper focused on 84 Australian HRPs investigating two questions:

  1. Do HRPs assign personal responsibility for continued bullying to either the target or perpetrator?
  2. Do HRP emotions (eg. anger or sympathy) in situations of workplace bullying increase, or reduce, a willingness to help?

In measuring this, the researchers explored how the response of target and/or perpetrator influenced those HRP biases. The two coping behaviours they included were approach-coping (the target/perpetrator took action to confront the problem) or avoidance-coping (the target/perpetrator took no action or acted in a way that avoids the behaviour).

What they found was the HRPs considered both the target and perpetrators coping behaviour when assessing the responsibility for on-going bullying.

It should be noted that in looking at this research that it did not explore how many or what proportion of HRPs held the biased views. The focus was centrally on did the biases exist and what influenced those biases.

When targets avoid, HRPs assign greater responsibility to them for being bullied

In relation to targets of workplace bullying, the findings indicated that:

  • The coping behaviour used by the target had a significant influence on the HRPs perceived responsibility for the continued bullying, the anger they felt towards the target, and their willingness to help. It had no impact on their sympathetic feelings towards the target, still feeling highly sympathetic to them.
  • When they displayed avoidance-coping behaviour, HRPs assigned greater responsibility for the behaviour on the target than if they displayed approach-coping behaviours.
  • HRPs felt more anger towards the target when they displayed avoidance-coping behaviour than those using approach-coping behaviours.
  • Targets were less likely to receive help from HRP when acting in an avoiding-coping way, versus approach-coping behaviour.
  • HRPs felt less anger towards the target and had greater helping intentions when the perpetrator made an effort to change or amend their behaviour. The anger towards the target was greater when the perpetrator made no effort to change and their helping intention was lower in the same situation.
When perpertrators made an effort, HRPs felt more anger and less sympathy

In relation to perpetrators of workplace bullying, findings indicated that:

  • As with targets, there was a significant influence between the perpetrator coping behaviour and the response of HRPs. Like targets, the main effects were on the perceived responsibility, anger and helping intention, but not sympathy.
  • However, when the perpetrator displayed making an effort to change or amend their behaviour (approach-coping behaviour), HRPs assigned greater responsibility to the perpetrator compared to when the perpetrator made no effort or showed avoidance.
  • HRPs also indicated they felt less sympathy and were angrier toward the perpetrator when they made an effort than when they showed no effort. There was no significant difference for helping intentions when they made an effort versus no effort responses.
  • However, HRPs had more sympathy towards the perpetrator when the target of the behaviour demonstrated avoidance-coping behaviours.
Understanding HRP bias in workplace bullying

What this research does is provide HRPs with a window into some of the challenges that exist in their management of workplace bullying. Overall, there is limited research into what influences HRP helping behaviours relating to bullying, and this research provides insight into the complexity of the human response, which can be conscious or unconscious.

A key to highlight from the research is that HRPs can attribute responsibility to either target or perpetrator depending on how the parties act, or don’t as the case may be, leading to feelings of anger and reduced sympathy. This in itself can impact on help seeking behaviours by either the target or the perpetrator if those behaviours aren’t suppressed or hidden from view. This can further push behaviours and the risk to your workplace underground or result in more complex external solutions being sought by an impacted party. It highlights the importance of self awareness and emotional intelligence in HRPs.

The attribution of responsibility to avoidance coping targets also suggests a gap in HRP knowledge of the dynamics of workplace bullying and related injury. Workplace bullying is a slow building attack on an individual or group of individuals. The intensity of bullying behaviours builds over an extended period of time, eroding available target resources and capacity to defend themselves. It’s a power based relationship where one has taken power from another through longer term intimidation and abuse. Often in the case of bullying, a target has been injured long before they realise they have been bullied. It’s important that HRPs understand this dynamic that responsibility can be misplaced based on their biases.

A final interesting point to highlight is that HRPs felt more sympathy towards the perpetrator of bullying, not only when the target was using avoiding behaviour, but when the user of those behaviours remained silent (or showed no effort). It should be noted that individuals who use bullying type behaviours often have learnt those behaviours over a lifetime. To get what they need, they have learnt to manipulate others around them, and this can include shifting blame. Admitting to using bullying behaviours is unlikely to occur because it will come with negative employment consequences. Staying silent will generally help keep them safe.

HRPs, if they are to risk manage and ultimately prevent workplace bullying, need to be aware of their biases if workplaces are going to change and become safer for all employees.