Human Resources - Bullying in the Workplace; What's HR to do?

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"So many visits to the snack cupboard today!"

"Well, you're too young and inexperienced to understand."

"Have you seen how many mistakes she made?"

"I wouldn't go near her today; bad mood!"

How many of these have you heard in your time as a professional?

None? Well, you're one of the lucky few. 75% of employees are affected by workplace bullying. In a professional context that bullying is usually more of an emotional or verbal attack which may be considered demeaning, with the intent to embarrass or belittle.

Something many women and minorities have experienced for years and, more recently, a daily feature in the working millennials life is the constant harassment of colleagues who would rather criticise others unfairly than focus on their own faults.

We all know that bullies usually do what they do because of their own lack of self-esteem, knowledge, education, envy or perhaps because it happened to them and as such it became a learnt behaviour. Whatever the reason, being on the receiving end can cause what would otherwise be a fantastic opportunity to grow and develop into a toxic environment that can do real damage to your self-image and confidence.

Often, this treatment is done to those in lesser positions than the bullies. This way the victims have less power to fight and more to risk should they push back against the abuse. And because the bullying is often verbal, sometimes invisible to those who are not the victim, it can be isolating and difficult to provide evidence of the abuse.

Victims can feel that they have nowhere to turn. 

As a Human Resources professional it is my job to ensure the businesses Human Resources feel supported, protected and able to perform to the best of their abilities. It is in HR's advantage for employees to be comfortable and happy at work. We can talk ROI and business strategy all day but if the basic need for a open and inviting workplace environment is not addressed then you can throw any strategy you may envisage out the window.

So what can HR do when an employee is dealing with toxic colleagues?

  1. Listen. This is always, and will always, be the number one action in any HR situation. No matter the circumstances that employee needs to be heard. As big as your company may get, taking the time to listen to and understand your employees is key. No robot service centre. Make the employee feel heard, take notes and ask the employee to keep records of any further incidents.
  2. Follow Policy. There should always be a formal policy in these cases. Generally this involves investigations into other perspectives, follow up meetings or letters to keep the employee informed on the process, deciding on a solution and providing the victim with reasoning as to the outcome. Consistency and fairness are the buzzwords here. A firm policy on the process for these complaints is the way to ensure these values are unwavering case to case.
  3. Act Quick. For the victims sake and your own these matters should be dealt with as quickly as possible. Dragging out formal complaint proceedings helps no one and dealing with the issue efficiently is essential. As HR you want employees to feel comfortable in approaching you with these matters; you want employees to trust your judgement and fairness. 
  4. Promote Better Behaviour. Whether you're facing complaints now or you are worried about issues developing in the future it is important to always proactively promote a welcoming workplace environment for all. This could involve training for both management and employees, regular reminders of office policy against bullying and harassment, or, perhaps more subtle, giving employees chances to let off steam through office activities. You don't have to spend too much budget either; organise a potluck, have a 'Fruity Friday', start a lunch power-walking group. Employees need a chance to step away from the desk and their roles in the company and see each other on a human level. Fun and friendly work culture leads to better employee satisfaction, more productivity and a wider pool of talent clambering to get through your doors.

How do you deal with bullying in your workplace? Are you now scrambling to write a policy or thinking of new ideas on how to liven up the office atmosphere? Let me know in the comments.