Bullying: what can be done about it?
In today’s highly pressurised working environment, the constant drive for commercial success and the delicate balance of internal politics and strong personalities can lead to allegations of workplace bullying.
These situations can be challenging for HR and the business, especially if the alleged bully is also a senior executive or star performer. The mark is overstepped by someone who is spectacularly successful at winning work or driving business strategy, but has less spectacular people skills.
At one end of the spectrum, there may be employees who simply lack the self-awareness to understand the impact of their behaviour on others – they do not bully deliberately, but it is an unintended by-product of their drive to succeed at all costs. Conversely, there are the star performers who act with impunity, deliberately targeting more junior or less influential employees. They have the ear of the board and feel that because they deliver on their KPIs, they are “untouchable”.
Most businesses have put in place measures to tackle bullying. There are typically grievance procedures, bullying or harassment policies and value statements in place to reassure employees that a bullying culture will not be tolerated and encouraging them to speak up. But this is not enough. Without effective implementation, a good set of policies counts for little.
Often, it is tempting to sweep the problem under the carpet and hope that it goes away, rather than confront a key employee. The business may seek to reassure the victim that the situation is being addressed informally while taking minimal action. It might perhaps follow a formal procedure, knowing that the allegations are unlikely to be upheld. If that doesn’t work, the victim may be offered an exit package and ushered gently towards the door. Either way, the focus is on dealing with the complainant while protecting the alleged bully.
Good HR practice tells us that this topsy-turvy approach is wrong. But the business speaks and commercial reality bites - we hear things like: “of course we can’t get rid of our CEO, even though he is aggressive and undermines those around him” or “obviously we can’t fire our top seller – that will hit our profits and he’ll just go to one of our competitors”. Far better to keep the valuable bully on board and turn a blind eye, they might say.