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Taking Down Workplace Bullies

New_Linkedin_photo_2013compressed.jpg By Lynne Curry

Bullying is epidemic. A 2014 survey published by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 37 million U.S. workers face “abusive conduct” during their workday.

What can human resource professionals do to address this epidemic? A lot.

If you’re an HR professional who wants to make a real difference, you need to understand why an organization’s leaders hesitate to take action against bullies—and why HR is in an ideal position to manage and eliminate workplace bullying.

Understand what creates the bully exemption

Although bullies damage morale and productivity in the long run, many bullies produce great short-term results. This leads some senior executives to embrace bullies as hard-charging, bottom-line-oriented go-getters. As a result, when others complain about a bully, their protests fall on deaf ears and HR hears from leaders, “Say what you will, he gets results.”

Senior managers may have a blind spot in terms of bullies

Bullies can be charismatic and excel at workplace politics, able to kiss up even as they kick sideways and down. As a result, “Leaders may have a blind spot concerning bullies and reflexively defend them, saying, ‘That’s not the Bob I know,’ ” says Gary Namie, co-founder and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “Everyone else sees the con, but not the leader.”

What, then, can HR do?

Make a business case

Bullies demoralize employees, reducing employee productivity. Abusive work environments have other serious consequences for employers, including higher turnover and absenteeism rates and increases in medical and workers’ compensation claims. By making a business case, HR can convince an organization’s leaders to stop paying the bottom-line costs for bullying. 

Create an anti-bullying policy

Although few state or federal laws prohibit bullying, HR can create a policy banning workplace bullying. This both sets a standard for organizational behavior and provides HR with a tool for disciplining bullies who violate the policy.

Provide training

Without training, some managers and supervisors may view bullying allegations as a hot potato. HR can provide managers and supervisors with the training they need to make certain they understand their role in preventing and addressing bullying. When HR provides employees at all levels the skills and strategies they need to handle bullies and verbal confrontation, those trained learn how to deal with bullies and know that HR stands behind them.

Provide a grievance channel

HR can provide targets of bullying and those who witness bullying with an effective grievance channel that keeps what is said as confidential as possible. HR can ensure that targets’ complaints aren’t met with disbelief, blame, or responses such as “What do you expect from a Type A like him?” or “That’s just Dave.” HR can evaluate the evidence presented and act on what it has heard to provide targets with solutions.


HR can sponsor regular employee surveys to uncover hot spots and trouble zones. Periodic 360-degree reviews of managers, supervisors and other professionals provide those interacting with bullying managers, supervisors or peers the opportunity to provide confidential feedback concerning problem behavior. If bullying exists, a well-done 360-degree review will uncover it.

Investigate and intervene directly

HR professionals can investigate allegations of bullying. If they uncover credible evidence, they can recommend discipline, improvement-oriented coaching or termination. HR can also intervene directly with bullies or act as intermediaries between alleged bullies and their targets to create agreements for future communication and interaction.
What can HR professionals do to address workplace bullying? Plenty.
Lynne Curry@lynnecurry10 on Twitter, is the author of Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (AMACOM, 2015). She is president of The Growth Co., a consulting, training, human resources and organizational strategy firm.

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