Workplace bullying: When HR is the target

Ever feel like you’re the unofficial “shock absorber” in your organization, soaking up the complaints and abuse from all corners of the workplace? A recent study says many HR professionals serve such a role—and they’re paying a heavy price for it.

More than one-third of HR professionals say they’re bullied by either executives, managers or co-workers, according to a recent survey, HR in the Crossfire, by Teresa Daniel, professor of HR programs and dean at Sullivan University in Louisville.

The bullying includes verbal abuse (yelling, screaming, cursing), threats, intimidation, harassment, derogatory emails, the spreading of rumors and lies, angry confrontations and work sabotage or interference. The bullying typically comes from managers and supervisors.

As Daniel told the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), HR’s job is to coach and challenge managers and employees, but “often these conversations can trigger a negative or defensive response that gives rise to bullying.”

And these aren’t all one-time occurrences. Almost a quarter (24%) of HR pros responding to the survey reported bullying behaviors were directed toward them on a daily basis, while 39% re­­ported weekly bullying incidents.

More than half of bullied HR professionals (54%) believe the abuse is directly related to their role as an HR practitioner.

Don’t suffer in silence: 6 tips

Daniel suggests using the following tactics to confront bullying.

1. Draw a line between bullying and professional criticism. If you suspect that continued harsh critiques of you or your performance have crossed the line, then you are probably right. Recognize that the employee may be mad at the HR policy or HR decision, not the HR person.

2. Meet with the offender. Be clear and frank about the offensive behaviors. If your efforts fail, talk to the bully’s boss.

3. Document each actual and sus­­pected bullying incident. It’s im­­portant to establish a pattern and progression for two reasons: (1) Bully­ing sometimes accelerates gradually. (2) Management tends to blame both parties or only the victim, sometimes accusing the target of not getting along with the perpetrator. Explain that bullying victims never share the blame.    

4. Reject appeasement. Management sometimes assumes that bullies will stop if they get their way. It might work temporarily, but not long-term. Explain to managers that appeasement encourages the use of bullying as a tool to get results.

5. Push for the creation of an anti-bullying policy. The guidelines should describe bullying behaviors and state a zero tolerance for such actions. Stress that bullying will lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal. Seek an executive to champion the policy.

6. Cite legal risks. Explain that the offender may also bully rank-and-file employees and risk a lawsuit. Reason: Federal anti-discrimination laws permit minorities, women and other “protected classes” to file lawsuits claiming a hostile working environment.

Bullying and HR

  • 33% of HR pros report they’ve suffered verbal abuse
  • 24% report threats, humiliation or intimidation
  • 42% report work sabotage or ­interference

Source: HR in the Crossfire survey

Why are HR pros bullied?

  • HR must often tell managers “no.”
  • The HR role is not fully appreciated or understood.
  • HR is perceived by some as lacking business knowledge.
  • Insecure managers might see competent HR professionals as a threat.

Source: HR respondents in the HR in the Crossfire survey

Responding to employee rants: 4 do’s and don’ts

Rants are unpredictable. Some employees simply vent, cry or complain. Others scream, insult, curse, threaten—or even get physical. In either case, follow these tips to defuse rants and avoid lawsuits:

1. Do listen. Avoid arguing with the employee, becoming defensive or taking the rant personally. Let the person speak his or her piece. Don’t interrupt or try to silence the employee. This is especially important in termination meetings. Fired employees who don’t feel heard are more likely to sue.

2. Do document the rant. It’s best to have a witness (another HR pro or manager) in any meeting that could turn confrontational. Then, take notes right after. Make a written record of any insulting words, facial expressions, hand gestures, mood, voice volume and tone.

Notes are important because an angry employee may say something that contradicts a lawsuit he or she files later. Or the employee may neglect to complain about something that later serves as a basis for a lawsuit.

3. Don’t ignore complaints that could be the basis of a lawsuit. For example, the employee may drop this bomb: “My supervisor is a sexist pig.” A court could say that such a comment served as official “notice” of potential sexual harassment and, therefore, the organization must investigate. In such a case, calmly say, “Tell me about your supervisor.” Employers have the same responsibility to investigate complaints, even if the complaining employee is leaving the company that day.

4. Don’t tolerate threats. If the employee becomes verbally abusive or even hints at physical violence, leave the room and call for help to escort the person off the premises. Write down exactly what happened and how it made you feel, especially if you felt fear.