What HR managers can do about bullying

Question:

I’m the human resources manager you wrote about in a recent article. I didn’t take action when an employee came to me complaining about a bully manager.
It’s easy for you and others to say HR should handle bully managers. In reality it’s not so simple. First, bullying isn’t illegal. Unless there’s a documentable offense, HR’s hands are tied, particularly if the alleged bully is talented and productive. We need evidence before we can act.
What the employee undoubtedly didn’t tell you is that almost every employee who comes to us pointing the finger at an alleged bully asks us to keep what they say and even the fact that they’ve come to us confidential. This means that if we do anything, it’s as if we’ve made up the stories we heard.
Second, while HR can make recommendations to senior management, we’re not the decision-makers. If we bring an issue forward and senior management doesn’t take action, we have to live with the consequences and our jobs may be every bit as much at risk as the employee’s.
So stop giving HR a bad rap.

Answer:

While bullying isn’t illegal, bullies expose their organizations to potential legal liability. Those who bully become so accustomed to getting their way through insults or pressure that they often don’t realize they don’t rule the world outside their workplace. When they harass or insult those in legally protected categories, such as someone of a different sex or race, or retaliate against employees who challenge them on safety issues or other legally protected grounds, they may drag their organization into a lawsuit or in front of a regulatory agency. Then, the bully’s claim that “it doesn’t matter that I called her a b—- because I call all men a——-s” or “I didn’t give him a hard time about the safety issue, I treat everyone that way” falls apart.
As an HR manager, you’re in an ideal place to convince upper management to take action when you see a workplace bully edging your company toward these potential pitfalls. Let your senior manager know about the $270,000 Dish Network paid out to a victimized employee fired after he reported abusive behavior by his boss. The jury ruled in favor of the employee when he proved his supervisor verbally and physically abused him and the company didn’t listen to his complaints. The jury further ruled that Dish management failed to protect this or other employees from the supervisor’s abuse. Or mention the $2 million Microsoft paid out because they allowed bully managers and supervisors to create a hostile environment for a salesperson by undermining his work, making false accusations against him, blocking him from promotions, and otherwise marginalizing him. Judge Sulak ruled that the tech giant was guilty of “acting with malice and reckless indifference.”
According to former attorney Rick Birdsall, “Employers have a duty to protect employees. If they fail to control the workplace, they potentially breach their duty, leading to a possible negligence claim. It is well recognized that employers who ‘knew or should have known’ illegal sexual harassment is occurring or occurred take on vicarious liability for failing to address the issue. A bully victim’s attorney might argue this same vicarious liability extends to bullying.” HR has the power to can make a case to senior management that they need to take action.
You have a great point that many who expect HR to take the lead want to remain in the shadows. As an HR manager, you have alternatives that work. If you can’t convince those who fear retaliation to come forward, you can provide a confidential avenue for employees to voice their concerns by instituting an employee survey or 360 review on the manager.
Finally, while the bully may take you on if you try to fix the situation; you are safer than employees who directly report to a bullying supervisor. You can also let the senior manager you speak with know you fear payback, so you have some protection should that occur.
Finally, if you could act and don’t, you allow bullies to run your workplace.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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