For many targets of workplace bullying, Human Resources (HR) might present as a logical point to go to when they are confronted with the aggressive and harmful behaviours at work. Yet time and again we hear the words of warning; do not approach HR. They are there to protect organisational management. Words you might hear them described as include passive, manager centric, unsympathetic, and untrustworthy. For targets of bullying these are words of caution.
But what is the role of HR professionals in bullying management and prevention at work? Do HR need to take a stand, or declare their interests, to provide employees with both clarity and safety?
In this article, we’ll look at this from the perspective of Australian Human Resources Professionals and Employee Relations employees by looking at a qualitative study of 17 employees (12 HR and 5 ER) to understand some of the perspectives that exist.
Exploring the Key Themes – Confusion, Variety, Policy Development and Distrust
In this study, four key themes were identified in relation to HRs role in workplace bullying. The themes are confusion, variety, policy development and distrust.
The first theme identified identified was that the role of HR lacked clarity and confusion in relation to workplace bullying. Those interviewed identified a number of roles that they could play including counseling a target, facilitating an investigation, arriving at a fair outcome, investigating a bullying complaint, and/or facilitating mediation.
Variety of Role
As can be taken from the above, the perception is that the role of HR within workplace bullying can vary significantly. Sometimes that role might lead them to be a mediator, but other times an investigator.
What was evident under this theme was the contradictory nature of the HR role. For some time, HR has portrayed itself as a partner to organisational line management. This has been as an internal contractor providing information and advice on how to address workplace matters, for many ill-equipped managers to carry out duties, such as manage situations of bullying, alone. This is at odds with objectivity, independence and fairness, especially when it comes to needing to fulfill a role as an investigator. It also contradicts mediator role perspectives, especially in circumstances where a line manager may be the perpetrator of workplace bullying.
A third theme identified itself as their role in policy development. This would include developing not only workplace bullying policies and procedures, but in terms of developing overall workplace ethical infrastructure.
Distrust of HR Professionals
The fourth and final theme was that of a sense of distrust of HR professionals. This was highlighted in the case of the HR professional being viewed as acting in organisation or manager’s best interests. In the Australian context, it was particularly highlighted that this bias exists from the outset due to a primary focus on minimising organisational liability.
What are HR/ER views on effective bullying management and prevention?
In regards to perceptions of how to manage and prevent workplace bullying, HR and ER professionals reported the following:
- That legal considerations were secondary to culture in an organisation and clarity around what is and what is not acceptable workplace behaviour.
- That senior management vital in the implementation of cultural change. It is they who are required to set behavioural standards and enforce this when employees stepped out of line.
- HR professionals have a shared role in driving cultural change. They do not see this as being their exclusive responsibility.
- While policies have a place in a workplace, they are insufficient to prevent bullying and it needs to be reinforced by management role modelling.
- Their role is raising awareness and workplace education, but not at the expense of employees being fearful to interact with each other.
- That they engage employees in system design, including behavioural policies and guidelines, to help facilitate ownership of that system by all employees.
Do HR need to take a stand on workplace bullying?
While this is only a small study, it provides an insight into some of the issues considered by some HR and ER professionals in regarding to understanding how they might view the HR role in workplace bullying.
However, what it does is raise an important question about the role of HR in addressing workplace bullying. Anecdotally, it is consistently reported that HR all too often look after the interests of organisational management in responding to workplace bullying. This has also been reported in the study above. This can potentially lead to greater harm to a targeted employee.
Therefore, do HR need to declare their role and their bias openly, either at an industry wide or organisational level, to enure a safer and fairer outcomes to workplace bullying claims?