Study Probes Bullying of HR Professionals


By Pamela Babcock December 19, 2011

Bullying from boorish bosses and cruel colleagues has gained attention in recent years. But could HR professionals be a target of workplace bullying just because of their role in the organization? Recent research says that might be the case.

In an online survey of 102 HR professionals in Kentucky, 31.4 percent reported that they had been bullied at work. Behaviors included work interference or sabotage (42.4 percent), verbal abuse (33.3 percent), and offensive conduct such as threats and humiliation or intimidation (24.2 percent).

HR professionals reported being bullied at the same rates as other employees responding to recent surveys. However, an important finding was that over half (54.1 percent) of the bullied participants reported that they felt that the abuse was related to their role as an HR practitioner.

“Because the role of HR has increasingly become less transactional and more strategic, I’m not really surprised that HR practitioners are experiencing some enhanced conflict at work,” said study author Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., dean and professor of human resource leadership programs at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky.

“The role of the HR professional is fairly unique within an organization. Their job is to coach and challenge business leaders so that the best possible decisions can be made for the organization. Often, these conversations can trigger a negative or defensive response that gives rise to bullying.”

The study, “HR in the Crossfire: An Exploration into the Role of Human Resources and Workplace Bullying,” was completed in November 2011 and is based on a survey made available online to members of Kentucky SHRM, the state affiliate for the Society for Human Resource Management, in July and August 2011. In follow-up interviews, 28 participants offered the following explanations as to why they felt HR is a target for bullying:

  • HRmust often tell managers “no.”
  • The role is not fully appreciated and/or understood.
  • HR is perceived by some as lacking business knowledge.
  • HR practitioners sometimes lack professional credentials, education or “organizational fit.”
  • Insecure managers might see competent HR professionals as a threat.

More than 60 percent of the respondents indicated that bullying behaviors were directed toward them on a daily (24.4 percent) or weekly (39.4 percent) basis. For those reporting verbal abuse, the most common bullying behaviors included insults, yelling, screaming, cursing, “in your face” confrontations and angry tirades, Daniel said.

Offensive conduct most commonly included threats, harassment, intimidation and a hostile work environment as well as blaming and humiliation in front of others. Reports of work interference/sabotage included “a flagrant disregard for the recommendations of the HR professional,” unjustified and frequent criticism, challenging decisions in a hostile manner, negative and derogatory e-mail notes and/or verbal comments, spreading of lies or rumors to discredit the HR professional and attempts to circumvent the system by isolating and failing to include the HR practitioner in important decisions and meetings, she added.

‘HR Pays a Heavy Price’

Daniel said the follow-up interviews illustrated the level of “trauma” experienced at work and at home because of the bullying behaviors.

“While I was looking out for the best interests of the organization, there was a high personal cost,” one participant said. “[My] self-confidence got hammered and I felt like a failure. The entire environment was very toxic.”

Daniel added that HR professionals often stayed in a bad situation because “they were serving as the ‘organizational shock absorbers’—they cared about the employees so much that they felt if they exited their role there would be nobody there to protect the other employees.”

As noted by one of the study’s participants: “If HR professionals won’t stand up to a bad manager, who will? But HR pays a heavy price for doing that.”

One of Few Focusing on HR

Recent studies about workplace bullying have found that between 27 percent (Career Builder Bullying Survey, 2011) and 35 percent (Workplace Bullying Institute U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 2010) of employees in the U.S. report that they have been the target of bullying at work, Daniel said.

Daniel has been writing and speaking about workplace bullying since 2005. SHRM published her book, Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR & Legal Professionals, in 2009. She said this study is the first in the U.S. to suggest that the HR role itself might be a contributing factor to bullying behaviors at work.

The largest study on the topic was done in the United Kingdom in 2005. Commissioned by Personnel Today and the Andrea Adams Trust, more than half of the nearly 1,400 HR professionals who responded reported that they had been bullied at work, with 55 percent indicating that the bully was their immediate manager, Daniel said.

In Daniel’s study, nearly 80 percent of respondents were female and 85 percent were Caucasian. They were highly educated—80 percent had a bachelor’s (43.9 percent) or master’s degree (39.8 percent), and 74 percent had a PHR (35.8 percent) or SPHR (36.8 percent) certification. Roughly 40 percent were paid $50,000 to $99,000, while nearly 30 percent were paid $100,000 or more. Most (54 percent) worked for companies with between 101 and 2,500 employees, Daniel said.

John Bachmann, SPHR, HR director for a global technology and payments processing company in Louisville and 2011 president of the Louisville SHRM Chapter, helped get the survey out to Kentucky HR professionals. He was interested in part because he has experienced bullying in previous HR positions.

“I was screamed at by a VP of operations in front of two of his managers,” Bachmann said, adding that it wasn’t the first time he had been confronted by that person. “I feel he was trying to intimidate me, and I definitely think my role in HR was a huge factor.” He said he hopes that the research will raise awareness among other HR professionals, particularly because when bullying goes unchecked, it might lead to workplace violence incidents.

Strategies for HR

Several strategies can allay the conflict that has grown between HR and managers as HR practitioners take on more strategic roles, Daniel said:

  • Initiate more contact with managers proactively and educate them about how to handle the most common people issues and processes.
  • Develop a greater understanding of the business (e.g. key financial drivers, biggest customers, process issues) from knowledgeable managers.
  • Improve communication, coaching and conflict resolution skills.
  • Instead of just saying no, provide alternative solutions with a corresponding assessment of the risk of each choice.

Study participants offered several response strategies that might benefit bullied HR practitioners:

  • Take a stand. Don’t avoid confrontation about the bullying behavior. Raise the issue and try to solve the problem.
  • De-personalize the situation. Remember that managers often attack HR recommendations but don’t really mean to attack the HR professional personally.
  • Document the problem. Keep fastidious notes. Document everything, because you don’t know what you might need in the future.
  • Build your professional credentials continuously. You need a master’s degree (at least) to have credibility with managers. Add to your credentials.
  • Join an organization like SHRM that understands HR’s roles and responsibilities. Talk with other practitioners who can discuss tough HR issues.
  • Seek support from mentors, friends, family and/or your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). “Know that the bully is out to crush your self-confidence,” one participant said. “Don’t let that happen.”
  • If all else fails, leave the organization. “Practitioners in the study noted that there are some situations where it is not worth it to stay. There is no shame in leaving a bad situation that you have tried to influence and just can’t change,” Daniel said.

Have a reaction or want to comment on this article? Join the discussion here on SHRM Connect:

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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