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Bullying: How can HR stem the tide?

Barely a week goes by that an Australian company — regardless of size or prominence — isn’t embroiled in a bullying allegation.

Recent headlines about bullying have focused on the Australian Olympic Committee’s (AOC’s) boss John Coates, with former staff alleging he allowed a culture of bullying within the committee. The claims spurred the first challenge to Coates’ 27-year presidency. While he survived, the AOC now faces a battle to restore its public image.

If the AOC does have a bullying problem, it’s not alone. Nearly one in 10 Australians experience workplace bullying, and half of these employees say the bullying has gone on for more than six months.

These are the findings from the Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) project, which recorded bullying and harassment at a national level, and was published by Safe Work Australia (SWA) at the end of last year.

Of more than 4,200 respondents to the research, nearly 10 per cent said they had been bullied at work during 2014-15 – an increase from 7 per cent during 2009-10.

(For more on that report, read our article.)

That might not sound very much, but the point is the stats are moving in the wrong direction. And experts warn these rates could be the tip of an iceberg. This is because most victims either keep quiet or move on, says professor Maryam Omari, executive dean of Edith Cowan University’s School of Business and Law.

“Bullying rates are hugely under-reported as most victims leave the organisation rather than lodge a complaint or stay on to identify as a victim,” she says. Omari has researched the area for the last decade and says some of her studies put bullying rates at between 22 to 33 per cent across different sectors and professions. And in most cases, the bully is a supervisor.

Workplace bullying is hardly new to HR, but the cost of failing to tackle it is a growing concern to business. The Productivity Commission says it costs Australian companies up to $36 billion a year.

So the urgent question of why it is getting worse needs to be addressed and, what HR should be doing to reverse the trend.

The ‘why’ may be a phenomenon of modern work conditions, suggests Omari, where employees are often expected to “do more with less” and must compete fiercely for resources, promotions or perks.

“It can create an environment where those who push themselves and others hard, may be the ones to reap the rewards and survive.”

Rhonda Brighton-Hall, CEO of Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah) and AHRI director, agrees that changing work patterns are leading to bullying. This is made worse when people with “low confidence and high egos” are put in leadership positions.

Insecure leaders don’t cope well with team members working remotely or flexibly, she explains. They may try to regain a perceived lack of control by keeping tabs on employees through unnecessary emails and texts, which can eventually become oppressive.

“Even though the emails may seem quite innocuous, there’s a feeling from employees that they have a strange tone, or they don’t feel like a normal email from your boss,” Brighton-Hall says.

And managers who lack confidence won’t question their boss over unreasonable workloads or deadlines. Instead, they
will “push the work down” and expect their own teams to work harder and faster, she says.

Ignoring the pain

While the impact of bullying will vary, the AWB data reveals the frequency and duration of the bullying, and offers an insight into what a typical victim endures. »

A little over 32 per cent experienced bullying at least once a week, with 38.6 per cent reporting that the bullying had gone on for up to six months. A further 16.3 per cent said they had been bullied for more than two years.

Yet, too often, when a victim does eventually make a complaint, they find HR’s response is to try and minimise the company’s reputational or financial risks, says Brighton-Hall.

“In defending the company, you lose track of the fact that there’s a human being in front of you who is in an enormous amount of pain,” she says.

Omari agrees that the perception that HR works for the company and will therefore protect management is prevalent. “Many perpetrators of workplace bullying are high achieving employees who are valuable to organisations because they get results, but obviously at a cost,” she says. “At times, HR is reluctant to take these employees to task, even though they create toxic environments.”

Employees’ reluctance to report bullying, usually because they are worried that it will damage their careers, adds to the impasse, Omari says. “HR’s hands are tied until a complaint is formalised. All they can do up to that point is to support and counsel the victim.”

Stemming the tide

HR professionals managing complaints should have an undergraduate level in psychology training, at least, believes Brighton-Hall. “A lot of HR people are not trained in psychology, so they haven’t got the baseline to know where bullying comes from, what it looks like and what effect it has on the victim.”

HR must also be able to “step back” from an individual complaint so they can see if bullying is happening in a systemic way, Brighton-Hall says. “You may find that the person who is saying that they are being bullied might be one of several people who have already been bullied by the same person. Three will have resigned, two have been made redundant and another has been transferred.”

Re-visiting these employees’ exit interviews will help. Having sight of the broader picture helps when investigating the more insidious passive-aggressive bullying, because complaints in isolation can seem almost “trivial”, she says.

HR can also identify potential bullies at the hiring phase, suggests Brighton-Hall. She recommends asking manager-level candidates (and their referees) to detail how they developed succession plans for team members. This will show if they have the confidence to develop and promote those around them, rather than keeping them down.

Omari says that while a commitment to stopping bullying starts at the very top, HR can make an impact. “One way is through staff satisfaction surveys that ask direct questions about the nature, rates and incidents of workplace bullying.”

Once this information is on record, management should then be compelled to firstly recognise that there is a problem and – then to address it, she says.

Originally published in the July 2017 edition of HRM magazine.

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Dan Erbacher
Dan Erbacher

I refer to the above comment in the article: “Yet, too often, when a victim does eventually make a complaint, they find HR’s response is to try and minimise…” Once again I have to correct this pervasive and erroneous belief that HR is the primary investigator of a complaint – whether it is for bullying, or any other form of disciplinary breach or misconduct. That is the responsibility of the Managers, and HR’s role is to be independent, and ensure due process is followed and natural justice afforded to all sides. Furthermore, bullying and harassment is now included in WH&S… Read more »

Dr Felicity Lawrence
Dr Felicity Lawrence

I’m concerned that there’s a growing misconception that all negative human behaviour in the workplace is now labeled as bullying. Just to clarify for anyone reading this article, bullying is clearly recognisable from other forms of negative workplaces behaviours as it is defined by the following 3 key elements: 1. Bullying is persistent (i.e., consistent, regular) behaviour that’s designed to hurt, embarrass or defame an individual or group. 2. The behaviour is conducted by a person who is *perceived* as more powerful than target individual or group (this means the perpetrator could be a highly valued or influential junior staff… Read more »


One of the worst things my manager did when I went to her to about being bullied (for at least 2 years), was repeatedly telling me the definition of bullying. Over and over again. Apart from it being condescending, I felt completely unsupported and when the investigation was complete, which confirmed the bullying had occurred, I was then told there would be no action taken against the bullies. If I could turn back time, I would never have reported it, I should have just resigned.

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