Putting an Anti-Bullying Plan Into Action

By Paul Pelletier

As your organization’s chief “people persons,” and as a human resources professional you have the potential for significant influence. You have a deep awareness about what’s going on throughout the organization. HR professionals are often the only ones with a complete picture of the workplace culture. As a result, you are a critical pivot point for change, and you wield the persuasive power required to help eliminate bullying.

HR Often Caught in the Middle
As a former senior executive who regularly interacted with HR, I empathize that HR often feels “caught in the middle.” You see the bullying problem (and who the bullies are) and what it’s costing (sick leave, stress leave, loss of talented staff, conflicts, team de-motivation, reputation loss). You may also feel conflicted in your role—when acting in the best interests of your organization, you may be forced to do things that support a bully. In effect, you have to choose between the bullies and the “others” impacted by them.

HR is often mistakenly used as the bullying complaint office and expected to handle complaints, investigations, and conflict resolution. Simply put, HR staff aren’t properly trained to deal with bullies. This isn’t your fault, but that of your organization. HR lacks training in counselling, psychology, and the power-dynamic-laden, conflict-resolution process, all of which are needed to manage bullying situations. Further, HR isn’t appropriately placed to ensure that complaints processes are fair, unbiased, and free from influence.

HR Can Champion Positive Change
Despite these potential hurdles, if HR can provide solid reasons to implement change and frame their arguments using words and approaches that executives relate to, I believe there are many opportunities for positive change. By demonstrating many examples of quantifiable impacts that affect organizational success, innovation, employee engagement, and the bottom line, HR can make a difference.

There are some very recent studies that provide HR with some powerful, research-based evidence of the real costs of workplace bullying. In a 2015 study on the cost of bullying in US post-secondary institutions, Leah Hollis makes some powerful quantifications:

The fiscal cost of workplace bullying in higher education can potentially compromise the institution’s commitment to meeting its objectives. Through this study, the cost of workplace bullying was confirmed by calculating the amount of time wasted and the salary cost per hour. The enormous cost of turnover was associated with the background checks, advertisements, lost productivity, the cost of a search, rehiring, and retraining procedures. Furthermore, the employees who leave are often the high performing ones and hence highly sought after talent in the field.”

Based on her research Ms. Hollis concluded that: “A college with 1,900 people on staff was potentially losing more than US$8 million (annually) by allowing workplace bullying. A large university with 22,000 on the staff was potentially losing more than US$93 million. A medium-sized school with 1,100 on the staff was potentially losing more than US$4.6 million annually because staff were disengaging from work to strategize or worry about the tactics of a bully.

Tools to Tip the Scale on Bullying
Fortunately, there are tools and information available to HR that can make an impact. I recommend an anti-bullying action plan that focuses on an approach unique to HR and on ensuring the people in the organization are paramount. Your job is to provide executives with irrefutable data that inspires them to act. Specifically, your action plan focuses on the following:

Get informed:
As an HR professional, you already have a deep awareness of your organizational culture, legal issues, and historical reality. You also know the bullies and the problems they are creating.

In order to appear credible, it’s important to have the knowledge and capacity to speak with authority. There is information about workplace bullying and experts with whom you can consult. It’s essential that you know about the benefits of a bully-free workplace—in particular, the cost savings of taking action to prevent and eliminate bullying.

Get a plan:
As with all complex projects, you need a well laid-out business plan and strategy. Identify and consult with all stakeholders. Begin conversations with your cheerleaders to plant the seeds for change. Demonstrate proof of the costs of the bully and quantify them wherever possible. Seek the assistance of subject matter experts. Devise a plan and move it forward. Be courageous and expect resistance

This project will encounter some unpleasant and difficult people—stand firm. You are doing your job to create the best workplace environment and support everyone in your organization. Known bullies will immediately begin to work against you, using their supporters in the executive ranks. Expect arguments. Stay steadfast in your commitment.

Focus on costs and impacts:
You have information that no one else does – what the bully is costing (sick leave, stress leave, loss of talented staff, conflicts, team de-motivation, reputation loss). This is your most important tool for gaining the attention of the executives. Prove that the bully is costing the organization money and show how.

For example, you have sick leave data. You know how many talented employees left their roles. You know how much it cost to replace them (the general rule is replacing an employee costs 1.5 times their salary). You know the costs of severance, investigation experts, and legal advice that were paid. If you can use information from previous bullying events to support your arguments, this will add credibility to your position. Pull all this information together and present it in a concise, factual summary.

If you don’t have all the costs, then focus on the impacts. Use as many facts as you can and avoid anecdotal references and stories (unless they are really helpful). Focus the conversation on how the bully’s behaviour is hurting the workplace. Talk about how it’s affecting morale and performance. Speak the language that executives relate to – motivate them by putting yourself in their shoes and finding an undeniable “what’s in it for me” proposition.

Finally, make sure you present the executives with practical, implementable solutions. Carefully consider what is realistic given your workplace culture. Offer a range of options and make a recommendation. Show them the return on investment of implementing your recommendations. Prove that taking preventative steps to confront workplace bullying is far better than permitting spreading poison throughout the organization.

Work on establishing effective anti-bullying policies, procedures, and best practices:
In the background, you can influence positive change towards your organization’s overall anti-bullying program. Bring your HR perspective, skills, and influence to the table to convince your organization that it needs to take action. There are a host of proactive and preventative measures HR personnel can take (or at least influence and support). These include the following:

  • Establish or revise Respectful Workplace Policies to specifically include bullying;
  • Initiate workplace bullying awareness campaigns;
  • Invest in bully training adapted to each audience (i.e. executives, managers, and staff);
  • Improve performance management strategies that include behavioural components to enhance workplace culture;
  • Address bad behaviour immediately and set a strong leadership example;
  • Establish investigation processes that are impartial, fair, and fulsome;
  • Take bullying claims seriously, but be cautious—until there has been a thorough assessment of the complaint by unbiased and trained personnel, the organization should remain neutral;
  • Use conflict-resolution processes that are sensitive to the nature of victim/offender relationships; and
  • Seek the advice of workplace bullying experts—treat bullying as you would treat any other complex problem that requires specialized professionals to advise and assist. The investment is small compared to the risk your organization is eliminating.

There are many things HR professionals can do to confront bullying, motivate change, and help implement an anti-bullying strategy. As trusted advisors to the senior executives, you are a critical pivot point for change. You wield persuasive power to help eliminate bullying. Use it.

Paul Pelletier, LL.B. PMP is principal of of Paul Pelletier Consulting (PPC), a management consulting firm specializing in real solutions for workplace bullying, respect and diversity, offering a full spectrum of training, consulting and coaching to address workplace disrespect.

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