Terri Howard, vice president for corporate preparedness at the Crisis Prevention Institute, a training company based in Brookfield, Wis., which was founded to provide safety training to human services professionals, recently spoke with Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine about what HR leaders should do to ensure their workplaces are bully-free, and how they can avoid mistakes when it comes to this sensitive topic.
What are some tips you would give to HR leaders for detecting and preventing bullying in the workplace?
I would start out by saying that the culture in an organization really dictates the behavior within that organization. It starts with creating a culture of respect and civility, and that must include a clearly defined code of conduct so individuals know what is expected of them in terms of behavior.
You should also create policies and procedures that emphasize respect, service and safety in the workplace.
Provide employees with the opportunity to give regular feedback to ensure you're keeping your finger on the pulse of the corporate culture, and have an open-door policy so people feel they can go and report those incidents, and make sure you're processing those complaints fairly.
Finally, HR needs to "walk the talk" by modeling the behavior they expect from employees -- set an example by treating everyone fairly and with respect.
How should HR differentiate between outright bullying and ordinary disagreements and misperceptions?
That's a good question, because I think some of this behavior tends to go by the wayside because folks interpret it as interpersonal.
Some of the unique characteristics of bullying are that it's pervasive and ongoing.
Typically, it's based on a power advantage, not necessarily between boss and employee, but even a perceived advantage -- in other words, if there is a team leader for a certain project, other team members may be at the same level in terms of position and job title but perceive the project leader has having the power advantage.
There's also the question of whether harm is involved -- if a person says they feel disrespected or harmed by the comments and behavior. If it's an occasional incident or clearly the result of personality differences, then I wouldn't define it as bullying.
When it comes to bullying in the workplace, what are the biggest mistakes that companies and HR leaders tend to make?
The biggest mistakes they make are confusing it with lesser behavior, not taking it seriously or not following up on a complaint because they perceive it as interpersonal conflict. When you do this, you're effectively communicating to employees that this behavior will be tolerated in the organization -- you're telling employees, "Go figure it out for yourself."
When a workplace bully is identified, what should HR do?
They should take it as seriously and treat it as they would any other disapproved behavior in the workplace, whether it involves coaching and counseling for the perpetrator and/or disciplinary measures.
The reality is that some people simply don't know how to act in the workplace, so it may be a matter of counseling that person so that they're aware that their behavior is inappropriate. I've worked with several large companies that have specifically identified bullying as a violation of their code of conduct, so they treat it as they would any other misconduct.
Should HR choose to do nothing about workplace bullying, what will the likely consequences be?
Although Canada and other countries have been more progressive about dealing with workplace bullying, you're probably going to see more regulations and legislation coming out here in the U.S. soon that will hold your organization liable if nothing is done.
By law, the workplace is responsible for keeping people safe.
But, quite frankly, HR needs to consider the intangibles as well: Folks don't like to work in environments where they see disrespect occurring. So it's not just the victims you'll need to worry about -- you'll see less productivity and lower retention rates among their colleagues as well.