Harassment and bullying will corrode an organisation’s values if left unchecked

HR must urgently check unwanted behaviour, says Anthony McDaniel – who offers five tips for tackling a bullying culture

The high-profile sexual harassment allegations currently dominating the headlines highlight the importance of addressing issues of bullying and harassment head on. But this is something that HR cannot tackle alone. Carefully crafted policies and training will count for nothing unless you go to the heart of an organisation and address two critical areas: values, and the leadership’s commitment to stand by them.

The senior management of an organisation comes and goes (the average UK CEO tenure is less than five years), but organisational values are much more resilient to change. They provide the guiding principles to employees, underpinning collective behaviour and decision-making.

Getting the commitment and buy-in of the leadership to believe in the organisational values is the responsibility of the chairman, chief executive or managing director. Their ability to collectively embrace the values and show their support through the right behaviours is the single most important aspect of creating an environment free of harassment and bullying.

An organisation that finds itself with a growing culture of bullying and harassment needs to take the following steps:

1. Be clear about the organisation’s core values

These need to be truthful, meaningful and relevant. It is common for organisations to include dignity, respect and fairness among its values. No one would disagree that these are highly commendable attributes. It is, however, important for the senior team to be involved in understanding how these relate to their organisation. A business that finds itself devoid of well-defined values is akin to a rudderless ship; its employees have no reference points by which to orientate their behaviours.

2. Make sure there is a clear alignment between the behaviours of the senior leadership team and the organisation’s core values

HR’s role is to guide the senior team through the process and help them to understand that well-defined and supported values lead to higher employee engagement, increased productivity, better staff retention and, ultimately, improved shareholder value. It’s a win-win situation.

3. Ensure senior management has the strength and capability to support and, if required, enforce the values fairly and consistently

HR has an important role in shaping the future of the organisation by putting in place an effective process that enables future leaders to be identified, developed or recruited, using selection criteria that involves an alignment of the candidate’s personal values to those of the organisation.

4. Put processes in place that encourage employees to speak freely to someone in confidence, without fear of reprisals

5. Run confidential employee engagement surveys

These will tell you if the leadership team is delivering on its promises. 

In my experience, the worst culprits of harassment and bullying tend to be in positions of power and influence, are driven by success and money, and seemingly make themselves indispensable to their employer. It may be worth looking at your incentive programmes to ensure that they are not driving reckless behaviours and perpetuating a culture of success at any price.

It takes a strong leader to seek out and confront issues of bullying and harassment. But by referencing the organisation’s core values, it becomes easier to intervene early and deal with the issue before the situation becomes toxic.

Anthony McDaniel is an independent consultant specialising in HR and change management