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Oct 10

Bullying at work: HR are increasingly the victims


In 2014/15, the ACAS helpline took about 20,000 calls regarding bullying in the workplace, and there is further evidence that this problem is worsening at work. Staff working in HR and personnel are often on the front line dealing with staff being bullied or harassed, but what about these professionals themselves? What happens when they are being bullied? Are they more at risk of being harassed due to their job role in HR? HR Advise Me investigated bullying and harassment of HR professionals to find out more.

82% of the HR professionals who participated in its online survey stated they have been bullied or harassed in the workplace. This is a surprisingly high percentage of HR employees and managers who are being abused in the workplace.

The most common form of bullying of the HR professionals surveyed was ‘undermining professional integrity’, meaning HR professionals are being made to feel inept in their jobs or having employees or colleagues go over their heads to get a decision made higher up. This can cause a severe confidence crisis in those being bullied.

Just under a third of participants were bullied by an employee who they were involved in an HR issue with, which suggests there needs to be a change in culture or attitude towards the role HR professionals play in organisations.  

A staggering 48% of those who responded said they were being bullied or harassed by their immediate line manager, which then limited how they dealt with the issue as they had to bypass their manager. One in five of those bullied by their manager dealt with it by doing nothing and ignoring the issue as they felt they couldn’t do anything due to the nature of the working relationship and seniority of the bully. Another one in five actually resigned over the issue because they felt so helpless. However, half of those harassed or bullied by their manager did challenge the behaviour, either directly with the bully or with a senior member of staff, either through a formal grievance procedure or informally.

Of those who have experienced being bullied or harassed, 83% experienced this verbally in person. The remaining participants were either bullied or harassed over the phone, by email, or had rumours spread about them to another colleague.

Over 60% experienced bullying or harassment on more than one occasion, with one participant experiencing it on more than ten individual occasions. Clearly more needs to be done to prevent recurring incidents or make reporting from the very first instance more accessible and acceptable.

Most worryingly, one in seven of those questioned suffered from stress, anxiety or depression and some even had to have sick leave from work due to poor mental health.

So, what can be done? It is clear that HR professionals are victims of bullying and harassment and perhaps due to their role within an organisation feel more limited about reporting it. It is important that every member of staff, HR teams included, know their rights when being bullied or harassed and feel they can tackle the issue. Organisations should have a clear procedure so that, if a victim can’t go to their manager, there is an alternative, feasible process to report these issues. Most of the respondents in the survey felt an alternative person to report incidents to would help, some suggesting an external person would be of some value. Policies and staff handbooks should outline that all members of staff have the same rights to not being bullied or harassed in the workplace and all members of staff who bully or harass will be subject to the appropriate disciplinary procedures.  Perhaps there is an argument for specifically increasing the disciplinary sanctions where an employee bullies an HR professional when they are carrying out their HR role.

Internal politics may also play a part in reporting of incidents but it should be made clear to all staff that bullying will not be tolerated and there should always be someone that can be approached in these circumstances.

Every member of staff should be made to feel empowered to handle these circumstances. It begs the question, if HR professionals, who deal with these instances every day, are struggling to report these issues and are feeling compromised in their roles, how are other members of staff meant to deal with bullying and harassment?

This article is based on the Loch Associates Group’s pilot survey into bullying and harassment of HR professionals, 2017 with 28 participants.

Pam Loch is the Managing Director of the Loch Associates Group, incorporating HR Advise Me, Loch Employment Law, Loch Health and Loch Mediation. The group provides an all-encompassing service for employers to look after and manage their employees.

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