10 March 2009

Whose Job Is It To Stop Bullies At Work?

Helen Major has dispiriting news for anyone trying to curb a bully
The Bully

Who do you turn to for help if your reputation and health are being destroyed by a workplace bully? Since research indicates that most bullies target good employees, you would think that the obvious answer would be that they should turn to HR or their union.

The problem is that ten years of international research on workplace bullying indicates that that may be the wrong thing to do.

Web sites dedicated to bully busting, like the site for the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham Washington, bluntly tell targets NOT to trust HR or expect the union to help them unless the target can make a business case for HR or the union’s “own self-interests.”

Curious as to why HR and unions were perceived so negatively, I decided to do some research on my own. I interviewed four HR and four union subjects and they generously shared their personal encounters with work place bullying with me.

Turning to a union

The only way he could help the workers was to teach them to "bully better" than the boss

One union subject shared the frustration of helplessly watching a secretary move from work-group to work-group, abusing her co-workers until some got sick and others quit. This subject worked with HR to stop the bully, but the best efforts of both the union and HR weren’t enough to reach a good resolution. When the bully finally re-located to another state she had already caused several excellent employees to leave the company. At the end of our interview, the subject said that the tools the unions have to address bullying take too long — usually six months or more — and that people being bullied can’t wait that long for relief, so they leave.

Another union subject, who represented immigrant laborers with a bully boss, told me that the only way he could help the workers was to teach them to “bully better” than the boss. He insisted that bullies don’t care what the law is and don’t change their behavior unless you make them hurt.

No help from HR either

My HR subjects told me about their struggles addressing workplace bullying. One talked of using a “sting” by placing one of her staff in a work-group undercover to get evidence she could use to fire a bully boss.

Another HR subject discovered workers playing cruel practical jokes to prevent a co-worker from completing an assignment. The jokes included rigging the target’s cube so she couldn’t finish a critical report due for an unforgiving boss. When my subject intervened, the bullies made bogus complaints against her, leading to a reprimand and, finally, to her transferring to another division.

According to research study 2007, 37% of American workers (54 million people) have reported being bullied at work.

According to a Zogby research study done in 2007, 37% of American workers — 54 million people — have reported being bullied at work. Seven out of ten employees targeted by bullies will be fired or leave their jobs voluntarily. Some will be so traumatized by the experience that they will suffer physical or emotional impairment, further reducing their ability to work. 72% of the bullies are bosses and 54% of the targets are workers. The study, led by WBI Research Director Gary Namie, found that organizations ignore bullying 62% of the time, even when they are made aware of it.

My small sample of HR and union subjects suggest that one reason organizations ignore bullying is that current interventions do not produce positive outcomes, either for the individuals or the organizations. Good intentions by individuals are not enough to protect targets or companies from bullies. It will take leadership and commitment by the whole organization to implement effective intervention and prevention strategies before HR and unions can successfully do the job of stopping work place bullying.


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