Why HR professionals must find the courage to challenge bullying

Malicious behaviour in the workplace can have a significant effect on an individual's wellbeing, says Lisa Seagroatt, so how can people practitioners tackle it? 

Have you ever been bullied or thought someone else was? Did you even know you were being bullied? Have you dreaded going to work or into a meeting just because ‘someone’ is going to be there who just makes you feel inadequate or irrelevant? Sadly, too many of you will be nodding your heads – and that’s not acceptable, is it?

As a child I don’t think I even realised I was being bullied. I thought the things that happened at school were ‘normal’ – I was the fat kid with glasses – so you get the picture. I left school without an O level to my name as I could not wait to get out to work; away from the playground bullies. I was so excited about going to work.

I went to work at 16 and, in a very short time, I encountered another type of bully – the office bully – and there have been many of these encounters over the years. I was genuinely shocked that adults in the workplace could behave no better than children in the playground. 

My experience of workplace bullying is sadly one of so many, and the effects of bullying in the workplace can be quite seismic for individuals. So much so that, six years ago, the stress caused by prolonged workplace bullying resulted in a complete mental health breakdown, which took me three years to recover from.

Often, at work, you don’t realise you are being bullied. There are also those bullies who do not realise they are behaving that way (and there are those who know they are). So, as HR professionals, it’s important that we have our ‘bullying radar’ switched on no matter who it might apply to. 

There are many subtle ways of bullying, such as ‘forgetting’ to include you in important emails or gaslighting by telling you ‘we never agreed that’.  Other examples include non-cooperation from colleagues, being excluded from conversations (which stop as you walk into the room) and being discriminated against because you are involved on a personal level with someone at work. 

One time I was relocated to a new ‘office’ that turned out to be a cupboard with a high-voltage box on the wall saying ‘danger 10,000 volts’ and an office door that said ‘fire door, keep shut at all times’. It was then I really got the message. They (the bullies) had located me as far away from everyone as possible to isolate me – and yes, isolation is another form of bullying. 

Sound familiar? I speak from experience here – I’ve been on the receiving end of all of these behaviours in the workplace, and I’ve seen colleagues suffer some dreadful ordeals.

They say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and I can honestly say that’s true about myself. So if you are experiencing workplace bullying, or if you are concerned about a colleague being bullied, as an HR professional you need to have the courage to challenge it and speak out. It’s really important you do this for yourself and for others, so here are my top five tips for tackling workplace bullying:

  • Talk it through with someone – chances are, if you are feeling uncomfortable then you are probably experiencing or witnessing some form of bullying, so don’t assume you are imagining it and ignore it.
  • If you can, try and talk to the perpetrator/s (if possible) – people who bully sometimes do not realise that they are, and this might be all you need to do.
  • Your organisation should have a dignity and respect at work or an anti-bullying policy, which will help you to understand what you could be experiencing or witnessing – speak to another HR professional if you can.
  • Keep records of conversations and examples of behaviours. Remember, any form of behaviour that is unwelcome could be a form of bullying so don’t dismiss things that make you feel uncomfortable, believing ‘it’s just my imagination’.
  • Don’t suffer in silence if the bullying is towards you. Prolonged bullying causes lots of health issues so, if you are feeling aggrieved, take action – that’s what the grievance route is for so check the policy and take control of the situation by getting help from external organisations such as Acas.

And if, as the HR professional, you feel someone else is being bullied then you need to take action. That’s where your professional code comes into play and that’s all about having the courage to challenge. If you feel something isn’t right, chances are it’s not, so have courage, do challenge and do check.

Bullying is unacceptable and damaging both mentally and physically and we must, as HR professionals, work towards eradicating this in the workplace to create a better culture and environment for us all.

Lisa Seagroatt is founder and managing director of HR Fit for Purpose