When Bullying Hits Home

By Dori Meinert May 1, 2011

April Cover

Teresa Daniel, dean of the human resource leadership program at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., and author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR and Legal Professionals (SHRM, 2009),talks about a disturbing aspect of her research.

How common is it for HR professionals to be targets of bullying?

Recent studies suggest that it is far too common. The first study of bullying among HR practitioners was a 2005 survey in the United Kingdom. Of the 1,391 respondents, slightly more than 50 percent indicated that they had been bullied at work. In my 2008 study, I found that 16 of the 20 individuals I interviewed in the United States, or 80 percent, had personally experienced long-term bullying behavior at work. Though the sample size was relatively small, these results may indicate that HR professionals are being bullied at a higher level than the general population, where it is estimated at 35 percent to 44 percent.

Why are HR professionals targeted by bullies?

More research is necessary. However, 45 percent of the 526 HR practitioners responding to my recent informal LinkedIn poll said they thought they were bullied because their contribution is not valued, while 18 percent said they were targeted because their managers thought their actions weren’t aligned with company strategy. Another 7 percent said they believed that they were perceived as weak performers, and 3 percent said the cause was their lack of education or "fit" with the organization. Others speculate that insecure managers may engage in bullying behavior because they perceive competent HR practitioners as a threat. An equally plausible explanation is that HR professionals who are bullied elect to remain in these difficult situations—despite the personal costs—to make a positive difference, essentially acting as "shock absorbers" for employees in their organizations against difficult managers.

Who are the bullies? What do they do?

Studies indicate that workplace bullying is perpetrated by a range of individuals—from CEOs to subordinates—but that, in most cases, the bully is a person’s immediate manager.

Bullying takes a variety of forms, but unfair criticism, intimidation and humiliation are the most commonly cited. People who have experienced workplace bullying have described it as an "all-out personal attack" and a "sustained assault."

What can HR professionals do to stop bullying behavior?

The research does not give us much reason to be encouraged, especially when the bully is the person’s boss. Having a frank conversation about the problematic behavior may help. Long term, the organization shouldput into place a systemic anti-bully strategy that includes implementing and enforcing anti-bullying policies, training employees and managers, and maintaining a culture that promotes respect and dignity for all employees.

Helping Hands

Team-building programs have a bad rep.

From corporate executives to managers, participants often brace themselves for an afternoon of silly games. They dutifully slog through the agenda while frequently checking the time and stewing about work piling up at their desks.

When directors and managers at Johnson Controls Inc. gathered in Milwaukee for some team building recently, they were unusually hands-on.

Their task? To make hands for amputees in Third World countries.

"It was awesome," says Nicole Schumann, HR assistant. The 18 managers and directors put together six prosthetic hands in about an hour—hands that soon will be changing the lives of amputees in Colombia, Haiti or Vietnam.

It’s team building with a higher purpose, an idea developed by corporate trainer Lain Hensley, co-founder of Odyssey Teams Inc. Hensley also serves on the board of the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation, which distributes a simple device that costs $50 to make and attaches with Velcro.

The analogies to workplace attitudes are obvious.

"Hands can build bridges or hands can build walls," Hensley says. "Are you building bridges with your customers or are you building walls?"

The experience can reinstill a sense of purpose in participants’ work and personal lives, he says.

So far, about 5,000 prosthetic hands have been distributed through Hensley’s corporate training programs.


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