How HR Can Combat Workplace Bullying

There is a lot of buzz around bullying these days—particularly in education and online—but the truth is bullying is much more prevalent across the professional world than you may have thought. 75% of employees have either been a victim or witness of workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as a repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. This can be conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, and it may take the form of interference with work or verbal abuse.

It can be tricky for HR to find the best way to intervene and bring about a comfortable resolution to workplace bullying. For starters, it’s important to create a culture that encourages employees to come forward with any concerns.

Here are three workplace bullying scenarios you may encounter and how to best approach them:

1. Peer-to-Peer Bullying

When an employee reports a coworker who is bullying them, be sure to thoroughly investigate the situation before moving forward with a plan of action. Protecting the privacy of the target employee is crucial to building and maintaining a culture of trust.

  • Encourage employees to approach you with issues.

While HR is not the complaint department, workplace bullying should not be tolerated. Your employees must know they can entrust you with their workplace problems. 40% of employees who are targets of workplace bullying never report it. If employees know that talking to HR will help bring about a healthier work environment, they will be more likely to come to you directly, rather than putting in notice once they’ve reached their limit.

Make sure employees know that their issues remain confidential until you agree on a plan of action, and also offer professional support for coping with the situation in the meantime. Always thank the employee for bringing the situation to your attention—you never want someone to walk out of your office regretting their decision to come forward.

  • Get your facts straight.

Speak with the managers of both employees about the accused employee’s performance, work style, and relationships with his or her peers. You may even want to take a little time to observe the accused employee to see if you notice any bullying tendencies. Document all of the information that you receive for your own record. Along the way, be transparent with the target employee on how you intend to investigate the situation.

  • Act and follow up.

Once you have all of the facts, you can propose a strategy for resolution. Depending on the severity of the bullying, the steps already taken, and the target employee’s level of comfort, a solution could take a variety of forms. In some cases, both parties might benefit from a simple mediated conversation with HR and their managers. In more severe instances, the offender may need to be placed on a performance improvement plan until he or she is able to make a positive change.

The situation is inherently sensitive, so whatever plan of action you ultimately decide to take, ensure the targeted employee is comfortable and fully on board. After the plan is implemented, be sure to follow up with the both employees and managers to see if there has been a change.

2. Manager to Employee Bullying

According to the WBI, 72% of workplace bullies are actually managers. This means that HR must be attuned to bad managerial practices and offer resources for successful employee management. The power dynamic in manager to employee bullying scenarios often keeps employees from reporting issues. Find ways to encourage employees to come to you with any problems they have regardless of rank, status, or pay grade.

  • Proactively train managers to be effective leaders.

Oftentimes, bad management stems from a lack of training. Managers who pick favorites, don’t know how to communicate feedback effectively, or view their reports as lesser are not equipped to build strong teams or contribute to a thriving work environment.

The best way to solve managerial bullying issues is by stopping it before it gets started. Introduce managers to core leadership values from their initial onboarding and lead ongoing development programs like employee coaching. With these programs in place, it will be easier to help managers course-correct by drawing on trainings, rather than focusing on an employee complaint.

  • Validate employees when they come forward.

Validating an employee who feels victimized by his or her manager is crucial in maintaining employee trust. The employee should walk away feeling like your ultimate goal is to find a solution that helps them feel comfortable in their work environment. Criticizing a superior can be intimidating, especially if the employee feels that it puts their job at risk. Sending out periodic anonymous surveys can open the lines of communication, and combat employee silence on issues they may face with management.

  • Work closely with managers to bring about change.

While proactive training is ideal, some situations require reactive steps. Use survey results or anonymous employee feedback to work closely with managers on solutions to employee concerns. This could range from weekly 1:1s to group training sessions, or even a direct conversation with the manager and his or her direct report. As always, document any conversations, and follow up with employees after implementing a resolution.

3. Observed Bullying

This might be the hardest scenario, as it’s not always clear when or how to intervene. You may witness an act of workplace bullying taking place in a common space, a meeting, or even as you walk by employee desks. In these situations it’s your role to lead by example and make a decision on the spot as to how to best handle it.

  • Assess the situation.

Your approach to observed office bullying depends on the specific situation. For example, the middle of a meeting is not the place to call a leader out on his or her mistreatment of a fellow employee. You might instead, pull the leader aside after the meeting, bring it to his or her attention and suggest a possible remedy—such as a follow-up apology. In a more casual setting where you observe an instance of bullying, like the break room for example, it might be more appropriate to address the offender in the moment.

  • Follow up with the targeted employee.

When you observe the situation firsthand, you can act on your own without jeopardizing the trust of the employee. You can speak from personal experience that the observed behavior is unacceptable. However, it doesn’t stop there—document the observed incident and follow up with the targeted employee to ensure that steps have been taken to resolve the issue and there have been no repeat instances.

Bullying in the workplace calls on HR professionals to make sure that employees have a safe space to report conflict. Happy employees work hard, promote your brand, and stay for the long haul, so make sure you have the right policies in place to support them in a safe work environment.

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