The fine line of bullying: What HR needs to know

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Extreme cases of bullying are headline material, and while overt and systematic bullying may make the nightly news, the real problem is that the majority of bullying happens on a much more subtle level, according to a leading workplace psychologist.

Eve Ash, psychologist and managing director of Seven Dimensions, a consultancy that creates video and online resources for training and leadership, said that in subtle bullying, the hurt, stress and suffering can be just as acute as in overt bullying.

Writing in Smart Company, Ash said subtle bullying is much harder for HR to act upon, and the major issue is really what can be done to prevent bullying, rather than what to do when it occurs.

There remains an inherent potential in all organisations for bullying to occur. Ash commented: “Your people are your most valuable asset, and it is a company's responsibility to exercise a duty of care over its employees, and that includes ensuring that bullying does not take place.”

The steps include highlighting and eliminating bullying that is already taking place, drawing up plans and procedures to follow in the future, educating your staff on how to identify and report on bullying, and communicating the company's bullying policy.

Each of these acts, Ash said, is essential to the smooth running of your organisation. In terms of identifying subtle bullying, Ash highlighted the following key points:

  1. Boundaries shift slowly

Bullying involves a repeated act by an individual or group of people that causes feelings of intimidation or emotional distress to another individual. This can often start out as a bit of a joke, and many good-humoured people will accept a joke at their expense if it's delivered well and in good taste. If it continues beyond the point where the person on the receiving end is good humoured about it you start to move into the area of bullying.

This is also true of intimidator-type behaviour. Whether we are talking about a boss or just the larger personalities in the office, it is very rare that someone actually sets out to be an intimidator. Over time an imbalance of personal power (often due to a loss of confidence on the receiver's side) can be pushed to the point of abuse.

The slow shifting of boundaries means that the victim can often be unaware of just how much pressure they are feeling – it's not until it's too late that action is taken. Bullies by nature will constantly push against the boundaries to exert their influence. This will rarely go away by itself – strong management will ensure that there is push back and recourse against the acts of a bully.

  1. Venting is not bullying

Saying aggressive things in a moment of emotional overflow isn't bullying. It obviously isn't a desirable way to act but it certainly isn't bullying. If you believe that you have gone too far with a particular comment, or perhaps you've embarrassed someone that you work with, the most important thing to do is offer a sincere and prompt apology.

This is an acknowledgment that a boundary has been inadvertently crossed. Mistakes occur, especially in a high-pressure environment, but everyone needs to actively take responsibility of an inter-personal blunder when it happens.

The point to remember about bullying is that it is persistent. It may not be intentionally hurtful, but if boundaries are crossed repeatedly without apology it's extremely serious.

  1. Sometimes people over-react

We all hate to hear about people suffering in the workplace but there is an awkward area of workplace discontent where someone is feeling hurt unreasonably. Some definitions of bullying centre entirely around the feelings of the victim, that if someone is feeling intimated, hurt or harassed then they are definitely being bullied. This isn't always the case! Someone might misread a message – actions can be read as threats and tone of voice read as aggressive when it is neither intended that way nor seen as that from others.

This can be a very difficult situation to manage, but it must be considered a possibility when investigating claims of bullying.

  1. You need a plan in place for bullying

It's very easy to say that your organisation won't accept bullying. It's easy to say that you're not allowed to send threatening emails, swear at co-workers, act in a sexist or racist manner or systematically intimidate someone – but the grey areas are incredibly difficult to navigate. These questions will help you and your HR department prepare for any cases of bullying:

  • How do you deal with a he says/she says scenario?
  • What do you define as bullying within your workplace?
  • If you find someone has been bullied, what do you do? What happens to the bully?
  • Nick K on 2011-12-15 12:38:15 PM

    Great article! Bullying - assertive behaviour - outcome focused behaviour - harrassment or however you want to label behaviours of the slightly more demanding nature can and do upset the applecart. The issue I think is that it's very perception based. Jane thinks she's being outcome focused in her heated discussion with Jill, but Jill perceives her as a bully. John writes a descriptive task list for James to complete and James thinks he's being picked on. Who is right is a far murkier concept than the law would have us believe. Thanks for posting. Nick

  • Helen on 2011-12-15 12:41:59 PM

    As a victim of workplace bullying, I quit my job a few months ago after having a mental breakdown. I have lost all of my confidence to rejoin the workforce, I am seeing a psychologist and taking anti depressants. Workplace bullying has had serious implications on my health and mental wellbeing.

  • Kathy on 2011-12-15 12:42:20 PM

    The employees to watch are the ones who are poor performers who see an opportunity to take their employer for bullying. It is vital to be thorough and pedantic when applying performance management processes to poor performers. I cannot say enough about note taking and going as far as getting the poor performer to sign the notes at the end of the meeting as a true and correct record. My recommendation to Managers is to always document every conversation with any of your staff, it's time consuming but far better than a long drawn out legal case where there is only one side documented and therefore no proof of what was said by the Manager. Yes, believe me, there are people out there who cry bullying as a career choice and they present themselves as victims, take companies for large amounts of money and then move onto the next company and do the same. Good training of all staff is essential for a business to be seen to educate their staff on a regular basis regarding these matters, particularly new Managers.

  • Trish Dehmel, CSI Inc on 2012-01-05 4:28:40 AM

    When HR Managers have done their very best and are now confronted with an acutal allegation of bullying, or workplace harassment, it is time to hire a professional and accredited Harassment Investigator to both safeguard the Corporation's concerns and the parties involved. Call CSI at 902-450-0697 or look at our web page at for more details.

  • Kent on 2012-01-06 1:04:25 AM

    I liked the article. When faced with the more subtle and pervasive types of bullying, organizations may do well to invest in respectful workplace dialogue for all staff. While organizations do need to have a plan, policies and procedures in place for bona fide cases of bullying, harassment and violence, it could be that the majority of productivity issues stem from a culture which accepts the more subtle transgressions mentioned in the article. Respectful workplace dialogue could centre around best practices in conflict resolution, from which many downstream cases of bullying emerge.

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