The role of HR in managing workplace bullying

It’s difficult to pick up a newspaper these days without reading about high profile cases of bullying and harassment in the workplace. No industry sector is blemish-free.

The #metoo movement is a reflection of the problem, and also represents a huge change in the world as victims who may not have spoken out before collectively talk openly and take action about past incidents they’ve had to live with.

In the workplace, bullying can be devastating to the victim, and create a toxic atmosphere if not dealt with appropriately and swiftly.

What is bullying?

The Fair Work Australia defines bullying at work as a group of people repeatedly behaving unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers, creating a risk to health and safety.

The bullying behaviour may involve aggressive or intimidating conduct, belittling or humiliating comments, spreading malicious rumours, teasing or practical jokes, exclusion from work-related events, unreasonable work expectations, displaying offensive material or applying pressure to behave in an inappropriate manner.

Bullying victims can experience severe and sometimes debilitating distress. They take more sick leave, try and avoid the workplace and are less productive when they are there. It’s expensive too - bullying costs up to $36 billion annually due to lost productivity in Australia, research shows.

But Australian workplaces are bullying battlegrounds. Research has also found that compared with 31 other European countries, Australia ranks 6th for workplace bullying. It found that bullying and violence rates highly in Australian workplaces, with seven per cent of Australian workers reporting being bullied in the past six months.

Women reported higher rates of bullying and for longer periods than men, including more unwanted sexual advances, more humiliation and more unfair treatment due to gender. Meanwhile, men reported higher rates of violence at work, the research by the University of Adelaide found.

A case in point

Bullying and harassment are rife among medical staff in hospitals, according to a report published in the Medical Journal of Australia late last year.

Researchers found bullying is so widespread in the health system in Australia that it’s considered endemic. According to the article, between 25 and 50 per cent of medical staff have been subjected to discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment at work. But researchers, in fact, believe under-reporting is also a problem, so the true prevalence is probably significantly underestimated.

The role of HR

Human resources have an extremely important role to play and a responsibility to maintain a workplace free of bullying and violence. Not only is this an obligation for HR, but stamping out this incredibly inappropriate behaviour makes for a more enjoyable and productive place to work.

It also means employees can get on with their respective jobs, safe in the knowledge that their employer is committed to providing a safe and professional environment for them to do their best in the workplace.

Of course, acting swiftly can also mean that more serious cases of workplace bullying aren’t left to fester and potentially end up in court, which can ruin professional reputations and be costly.

How HR can stamp out bullying

Making sure you clearly communicate your expectations to employers is the best way to manage workplace bullying. Create a policy and procedures document that outlines your anti-bullying policy and what steps can be taken when employees fail to adhere to your policy. It’s important to be clear that complaints will be handled confidentially.

This policy document should also give victims clear steps on how to handle a bullying incident and ensure there is a procedure in place to report any incidents to management or HR. If a complaint cannot be resolved locally, or if the complaint involves an employee’s manager or supervisor, it should be escalated to management. It’s also extremely important you establish a confidential reporting mechanism that staff understand and can access as required.

A formal investigation should be conducted to assess the complaint, with conciliation or mediation offered. The nature of the allegation will usually determine the immediate steps that need to be taken.

Like all job requirements for HR, regular communication and quick action is the key here. Even informal complaints need to be handled swiftly and investigated because it doesn’t take long for word to spread and the reputation of a workplace will suffer.  

5 top tips for HR to manage workplace bullying: 

1. Adopt an anti-bullying policy: Define bullying and harassment in clear terms and make sure employees understand what crosses the line in your books. Distribute this throughout the workplace.

2. Remind staff: Explain bullying and harassment and the procedures to file a complaint to staff at least once a year.

3. Provide training: Managers and supervisors should receive specific training on your anti-bullying procedures and understand how complaints should be handled.

4. Monitor your workplace: Talk to employers and supervisors from time to time and ask about the work environment and how things are going in their role.

5. Establish counselling services: Having a neutral and independent workplace counsellor come into the office as required to handle counselling sessions for staff can be a great resource for your company, no matter how big or small.

If you're interested in a future career in HR management, get in touch with our Student Enrolment team on 1300 701 171 to discuss which course is best suited to you and your career goals.