Category Archives: How Can HR Clearly Communicate that Bullying is Unacceptable?

How HR can Clearly Communicate that Workplace bullying is unacceptable: Round 2

Currently I reside and work in a country where most organizations do not have a policy on harassment or bullying and unions and employee associations are not allowed, so when this topic was suggested I wondered how I would address it.   It is not possible to ensure that employees are aware of policies or practices that don’t exist and these policies are not likely to be enacted any time soon.

I decided to explore the idea that the best way for HR to communicate that bullying is unacceptable in this environment, is to create a workplace culture that eliminates the space for bullying to occur.

Just as supply chain management by large companies like McDonalds has created the opportunity to ensure that suppliers treat the environment with respect – an unexpected win for environmentalists, I think that freezing out bullying might create an unexpected win for HR and for those who have been victims of bullies.

I like to think of this as developing a Poka – yoke for bullying.  Can we stop it before it happens?  We  have done this with mechanical devices, like electrical plugs – we can only put them in the socket one way, thus preventing us from electrocuting ourselves, at worse, or giving ourselves a shock, at best.

When we take money from the ATM, our debit card pops out and we have to remove it before the money comes out.  This is a Poka-yoke design that prevents us from leaving our card in the machine.  If we don’t remove the card, we won’t get our money and most of us won’t walk away without that!

I think it is possible for HR to create a strong culture that stops bullying before it takes hold.  This culture would focus on team work, friendships, supportive behaviour and fun!  It would have clear guidelines for how employees relate to one another.

Am I dreaming?  I don’t think so. There are many ways to create an active, healthy, productive workplace and this kind of workplace has little space for bullying behaviour.

Happy people have more positive work behaviour and are more highly engaged (Diener, 2000).   There are a number of ways to create a workplace that encourages happiness.  One way is to encourage, coach and train to employees in the attributes of happy people, which are: to be organized, keep busy, spend time socializing and develop a positive outlook (Fordyce, 1977).

Happy employees are more engaged and this has a positive impact on workers, organizations and customers.  Engagement creates positive perceptions of one’s work and one’s workplace(Spreitzer and Porath, 2012).

Spreitzer and Porath (2012) suggest four ways to energize and engage employees

  1. Encourage them to make decisions that affect their work
  2. Practice ‘open book’ management – tell employees what is happening and share the goals and aspirations of the company and their measurement criteria
  3. Create a ‘civil’ culture
  4. Offer employees feedback

Yet another way to improve morale and, coincidently, productivity is to involve employees in fitness activities in the workplace (Carnethon et al., 2009; Pronk et al., 2004).

Unexpectedly, it seems that perfectionism, the kind of perfectionism that originates in the person herself, and motivates her to succeed, also creates higher levels of engagement (Childs and Stoeber, 2010).

There are a number of ways to encourage engagement:

1.       Social gatherings like picnics, philanthropic work, and parties
2.       Employee recognition,  promotions, and thank-yous
3.       Employee development, attending workshops and conferences
4.       Employee meetings, complaint sessions, brainstorming, and discussion forums
5.       Empowerment, involving employees through responsibility

(Moore, 2012)

So these are some ways to create a workplace that mirrors a civil society which discourages bullying at the source.  By promoting employee engagement, health and happiness, HR practitioners can send a clear message about the workplace culture that leaves no place for bullying, creating a virtual Poka-yoke for bullying.

1 Poka-yoke is Japanese slang for “avoiding inadvertent errors.”)


Childs, J. and  Stoeber,  J. “Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented, and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism in Employees: Relationships with Burnout and Engagement.” Journal of Workplace Behaviour 25.4 (2010). DOI: 10.1080/15555240.2010.518486

Diener, E. “Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index.” American Psychologist, 55, (2000).

Moore, H. ‘Spot the difference.’  Occupational Health 64.10 (2012)

Spreitzer, G. and Porath, C. “Creating sustainable performance.” Harvard Business Review (2012)

How HR can Clearly Communicate that Workplace bullying is unacceptable: Round 1

Although this may seem very basic, one of the first things is to ensure that there is a policy or guidelines in place that identifies the steps to take if one is being bullied and equally important, identifies the consequences of bullying (for the offender).

Once the policy or guidelines are in place, people need to be trained to recognize bullying in all its forms.

There are many forms of bullying, it’s not just the blatant acts but also the smaller things, like circulating rumors, failing to include people in emails, excluding people, ignoring people’s input or not inviting it.  These behaviours all lead to the same sense of frustration, and loss of self-esteem as outright bullying.

For HR to communicate or to enact policies or guidelines, they need to have power within the organization, and this power needs to be localized in larger organizations because situations vary in different geographic regions.

It is possible to think, when there are a number of different cultures working together, that bullying is just the way people in some cultures treat each other, but we all deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of our culture, so this is not a reason to ignore behaviour that puts others at risk, physically or emotionally.

A lack of communication can lead employees to feel powerless, changes in working conditions, additional tasks and increased performance expectations need to be communicated, even bad news is better than no news or rumors.

HR needs to open the discussion and make it safe for people to talk about their experiences, because bullying affects families, not just the individual involved.  People who are being bullied live with it 24 hours a day – it spills into the rest of their lives.

One tactic HR can use is to show the other managers the increase in stress and sick leave that results from the poor morale that develops when bullying is not dealt with.

It is important for employees that might be inclined to bully to realize that the consequences are real, that is, a disciplinary approach will be followed.

Often, people are unaware of the impact of their behaviour on others, Laura Crawshaw, founder of the Executive Insight Development Group, describes what she calls, abrasive behavior – shouting, swearing, threatening, and publicly demeaning others.  She claims that those who exhibit this behaviour can be coached.  They are unaware of their destructive impact on others (cited in Masi, 2012)

Crawshaw’s theory was backed up by an experience one of the women I interviewed, shared.  She said she was ready to quit her job so she went to the General Manager and requested that he speak to her boss, who was constantly yelling at her and belittling her in front of her colleagues.  She was suffering the stress and anxiety that results from this treatment.  Her GM insisted that she confront her boss, and finally, after seeing her procrastinate for weeks, gave her a 10 minute deadline.   She stretched the deadline to the end of the day, when she approached her boss and asked if she could talk to her.  She asked if there was something wrong with her performance and when her boss said her performance was fine, she asked why she was treating her so poorly.  Her boss began to cry, as Crawshaw indicated, this woman had no idea the impact she was having.  Her boss then asked for examples of her behaviour and asked that the employee let her know the moment she began to behave like this.

This confrontation worked and it was the beginning of a productive relationship, but it is a lot to ask of any employee who is being bullied.  The woman I interviewed said that confronting her boss made her much stronger and she has never allowed a situation like this to develop again.

Perhaps this is a lesson to take on board, employees need to be coached in how to react to bad behaviour and they need to know that the sooner they take action, the better.  Talking about the situation doesn’t change it, only dealing with it does.  A hard task, but even if one fails, the sense of power that comes from standing up for oneself can be amazing.

A bully free workplace is the real goal of any communication about bullying.  In a bully free workplace, morale increases al0ng with employee’s happiness, energy and health.  Stress and illness decrease and employees have a sense that there is a resolution to any issues that arise.  They feel informed and powerful.


Masi, D. (2012) a Review of Tehrani, N. (Ed.). (2012). Workplace

Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions in theJournal of Workplace Behavioral Health (2012)

Thanks to Fatima Elmi for her sharing her insights on this topic.

How Can HR Clearly Communicate that Workplace Bullying is Unacceptable?

The recent and tragic event of Amanda Todd’s suicide brings to light the profound impact bullying can have on a person’s life. Unfortunately, even as we become adults and working professionals there are still instances where people feel bullied and threatened. I believe we all have a role to play to ensure that our workplaces are safe spaces where we are comfortable being ourselves and feel accepted for who we are.

Human Resources also has an important role in setting clear policies that articulate that workplace bullying is unacceptable and has strict consequences. This policy should be a part of any HR guidelines/hand outs for new employees and should be built into any workplace orientation. I strongly believe that the clearest and most effective way to communicate that workplace bullying is unacceptable is to ensure that any reported cases of bullying are taken seriously, looked into and handled immediately. It is also important to build awareness in the organization of this policy, through posters, bulletins, potentially a spot in the internal newsletter, etc. By actively communicating to employees that this is an established policy that will be implemented when necessary, HR will help to foster understanding and a level of comfort among employees with the policy. I also believe it can be helpful to offer occasional workshops or seminars about workplace bullying generally and how to prevent it.

Ultimately we all need to be aware of how we behave in the office and ensure we are being respectful of our colleagues. In addition, if we witness workplace bullying the onus is on us to speak up, and/or go to HR and report the incident. Workplace bullying can be mitigated but it takes the active participation of both HR and all employees.

The Role of HR Involves Creating and Enforcing Company Policy; Bullying Policy Must Be Clear

In North America, our attention was directed to the effects of bullying with the death of young Amanda Todd this past October.  She was a 16 year old girl who took her own life after struggling with high school bullies, and posting a youtube video as a final cry for help.

Bullying is not limited among youth.  Unfortunately it’s a reality that men and women deal with in the workplace, in a passive aggressive and direct manner.  Passive aggressive bullying involves making subtle comments to an individual that come across as jokes, but are meant to be hurtful.  Direct bullying on the other hand, refers to as aggressive behavior that involves one person directly telling another person hurtful, and often inappropriate things.  Both types of bullying can manifest in different ways, and are equally despicable.

The role of human resources as a profession is to manage the human intellect in an organization.  The work involved varies between creating and enforcing employee policy.

The best way that HR can clearly communicate that workplace bullying is unacceptable is by having direct policy stating exactly that: bullying is unacceptable in the workplace.  Bullying needs to be defined in policy, and there needs to be policies that state the consequences that follow should bullying occur.

I certainly understand that what happens from there is where the real work happens; it’s the responsibility of company leaders to follow through on the policies laid out regarding bullying.  But that only makes sense.  HR and other company leaders need to set boundaries around conduct in the workplace.  Corporate culture needs to reflect those policies.  And should employees refuse, then perhaps that’s the indication required to signal that certain employees don’t belong.

If the policy is ignored and employees feel bullied, then those individuals involved (including any witnesses) need to speak up regarding what happened, and discipline ought to be carried out.

At the end of the day, responsibility comes into question.  Whose responsibility is it to say that one person’s conduct is inappropriate?  When a co-worker makes an offensive joke, how should people respond?  It’s not the role of HR to police their employees.  However, it is the role of HR to enforce company policies.

I recently participated in an HR discussion group where someone described a drastic decision made by an HR manager to prove that the company policy was not to be broken.

The example I’m about to share involves stealing (not bullying) but I think its message still applies here, to some extent.  To respect the privacy of those present, I’ll change the example a little bit, but essentially this is what happened: an employee purchased a closed package of food.  Inside the package were two items instead of one.  A number of other employees saw this happen, had a laugh, and purchased the same item expecting to receive a second item for free.

The company policy stated that stealing is forbidden.  The consequence for each employee who purchased one item but received two were immediately terminated.

Is that an extreme example?  Absolutely!  But when bullying can lead to such drastic results such as emotional torment, and the taking of one’s life, then perhaps extreme examples are required, and out to be followed in certain situations.

Certainly a great deal of policy writing is reactive.  I’m sure that schools in British Columbia will be looking at their bullying policies for some time.  But the best way that HR can clearly set the record straight that bullying is unacceptable is to create direct policies, and to enforce them.

The measures of enforcement that are necessary to maintain policies regarding bullying on the other hand, are another complex topic best left for another discussion.