Saturday, August 28, 2010

HR Managers: How do you know when a person is being bullied at work?

This question is one that comes up frequently in LinkedIn discussions, blog postings, magazine articles, news casts, and during my presentations to HR professionals. "If an employee talks to me about being bullied, how do I know that what he or she is describing is indeed bullying?"

The answer: If the employee indicates he is being abused or bullied, then he is being abused or bullied.

"But how do I really know that this person is being bullied?" Answer: LISTEN TO THEM, AND LISTEN GOOD.

Attempting to identify bullying specifically is daunting because it is less cut and dry than something like sexual harassment. Ask me on a date in exchange for a promotion, we know that's sexual harassment. Slyly leave me out of emails I need to do my job well, roll your eyes when I talk, and write in my employee evaluation that my performance has dropped, well... is that bullying? Those behaviors don't sound so bad, right?

Identifying bullying is easy when you listen to your employees' narratives - because bullying is about perception. In fact, you might have two employees being treated exactly the same, and while one is a little annoyed, the other feels bullied, depressed, anxious, and miserable. I guarantee that this person tells other people in the organization about the way they feel - and those people will often agree that they've witnessed this abuse, and begin to spend time consoling the target. Now they have stories to tell about bullying too. Now bullying is becoming part of your organizational culture. Now bullying is becoming a way of life at your organization. This is not good.

One could argue that perception, and the narratives that drive it, aren't good enough to prove bullying is really happening. My response to that hoo-ha: Get out of your comfort zone and act on the complaint anyway. The problem is that we are in a very uncertainty-rejecting culture; we have very specific laws, policies, instructions, procedures and documents in our organizations, and we rely on them to tell us what to do. So we are uncomfortable when presented with a situation that doesn't have a roadmap already outlined. Just because there isn't a law or a policy in place to tell you what to do, doesn't mean that person is not bullied, and it doesn't mean you should not act on the complaint.

As an HR professional, it is your responsibility to ensure that employees are able to collaborate, work positively with one another, and feel comfortable talking to each other freely. If an employee tells you that she is bothered by the way she is treated by another person, then there is a problem and it needs to be addressed. Whether you agree that this person is a target of bullying or not is, quite frankly, irrelevant.

Ultimately, the truth of a story lies not in the intricate details that you jot down in your notes as you listen to your employee's grievance, but in the story's underlying meaning. Ask yourself what the story means for performance, and what it means for the organization's culture.

The value of the story lies in your reaction to it. Don't you want to have a workplace where innovation, effective decision-making, and high performance prevails?

If you do need a clear cut answer to the questions: "Is this person being bullied, really? Or are they just being over sensitive?" then call us. Civility Partners has the tools and the knowledge to help you determine the answer, and to help you intervene effectively.

We can help you develop a positive workplace where bullying would not be allowed to thrive. Contact us for a complimentary consultation.