Thought Leadership


HR of Safety? Who’s responsible for stopping workplace bullying?

July 18, 2012
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argumentLast week I posted an item about workplace bullying on my personal blog (www.philladuke.wordpress.com).  I asked the question “Is workplace bullying a safety issue?” and it fomented quite a debate.  In asking this question I realized that bullying has touched far more of us far more deeply than I could ever imagine.

The debate quickly took two sides—which makes sense, since I asked it as a binary, yes or no question: yes, because bullying creates an environment where it is difficult or impossible to work safely, and no, because it is the job of Human Resources to do the job.

I think both sides have merit and I’m not exactly sure where I stand on the issue.  Let me begin by saying that all professionals have a personal responsibility to intercede in cases where they see harassment of any sort the question is given that we know that bullying (and I will define that term in just a moment) does increase the probability that the bullied worker will make mistakes and bad decisions. The question then becomes to whom should we report this behavior - to human resources, or to safety or to both?

The question is much clearer if, instead of workplace bullying, it is a case of sexual harassment.  Most of us wouldn’t consider sexual harassment avoidance the responsibility of safety, and yet the same argument that such harassment puts the victim at greater risk of being injured because of a heightened likelihood of mistake making and/or diminished decision making ability.  The question is essentially academic; most of us work in organizations where there is a clear policy and procedure for reporting harassing behavior, so even if we believe that preventing harassment is the job of the Safety Function, scarce few of us can do anything about it.

What’s the Big Deal about Bullying?

It seems like the last couple of months we have seen a huge uptick in reports of workplace bullying.  Bullying isn’t new, nor is workplace bullying.  We used to call it harassment and in many countries harassing someone because of their gender, race, or religion is illegal.  Harassment is a pattern of behavior—one instance is not enough to justify the claim of harassment in most cases. And it’s important to remember that engaging in harassing behavior does not make one a bully. Most people have engaged in some behavior that they justified as harmless fun that someone else would judge to be bullying or harassment.  Let’s not go on a witch-hunt and label someone who engages inappropriate behavior as forever the bully.

Even so, harassment (or bullying if you prefer) is a big problem in the workplace; it disrupts productivity and raises the risk of workplace violence.  Workplace bullying needs to be addressed quickly, seriously, and decisively, but by whom?

Sometimes Human Resources Is Doing the Bullying

I know of a case where an HR professional, new to the job of generalist, was aggravated by a colleague and engaged in bullying behavior.  First he set about looking for grounds for termination for his colleague, he scoured the internet and discovered that the colleague had outside employment.  He ran to the HR professional responsible for the area in which the colleague worked and after printing out the colleague’s LinkedIn page and blog, strongly suggested that the colleague be investigated and perhaps fired for a conflict of interest violation.

After a three-week investigation, the legal department found that the colleague had fully disclosed the outside employment and that no conflict of interest existed.  What happened to the HR Generalist who engaged in this clear abuse of power?

Nothing. 

Often HR professionals protect their own, and are reluctant to take appropriate action against offenders in their own department. In this case, many people defended the offender by noting that he had recently lost his job and was in the middle of a painful divorce.  Should this excuse the behavior?  Clearly not, but it remains highly unlikely that any substantive response will be made to this harassment, and if no action is taken,  how will this organization ever expect to respond to those outside of the HR function who engage in similar behaviors?

Preventing Bullying Is the Responsibility of First Line Supervision

As safety professionals move from policemen to coaches, we must move more and more of the responsibility for keeping the workplace safe to first line supervision.  First line supervisors have the power and authority to get things done in the areas for which they are responsible. This is where the safety professional can make a big difference in preventing workplace bullying.  By clearly articulating that such behavior constitutes a safety hazard, and reinforcing that the first line supervisor has the primary responsibility for ensuring a safe and productive workplace.

Preparing Supervisors to Deal With Bullying Behavior

It’s fine to push responsibility for preventing and responding to bullying behavior onto first-line supervision, but for supervisors to be successful, safety professionals (in partnership with training professionals and human resource professionals) must prepare supervisors in:

Spotting the Warning Signs of Bullying. Harassment is a pattern of behavior and most aggressive behavior doesn’t start out as bullying.  Training supervisors in how to identify the risk factors for bullying and harassment is central to prevention.

Adopting a Zero-Tolerance for Harassment. Supervisors must be taught that there is never sufficient justification for bullying or harassment and must consistently enforce anti-harassment policies.

Nipping It In the Bud. Most harassment starts out small—practical jokes, teasing, and name-calling—but before it becomes harassment it is generally unprofessional and or immature behavior.  Supervisors must be encouraged to demand professional and appropriate workplace behavior so that it never rises to the level of harassment or bullying.

Knowing Policy and Procedures Regarding Bullying.  Most every organization has a very specific policy and procedure for addressing harassment (and by extension bullying).  Supervisors should be trained in these policies and procedures and periodically refreshed in how to evenly and fairly apply them.

Is preventing bullying the job of HR or Safety? No. It’s the job of the first line supervisor, but that having been said, it is incumbent on all of us to develop and support our supervisors in addressing this serious threat to workplace safety.

Did you enjoy this blog? Did you find it thought provoking? Why not share it on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn or by sending it to friends and colleagues via email.  I would sure appreciate it and I’m sure they would too.

This post originally appeared on Phil LaDuke’s RockfordGreeneInternational’s blog. Rockford Greene International is an organization committed to helping a handful of high potential clients to optimize their business practices to fully utilize their potential.

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