HR, the bully maketh

by Isabel Wu

Workplace bullying is a problem that the Productivity Commission estimates costs Australia $36 billion a year in lost productivity.   For human resources, which has only ever had one purpose: to manage an environment in which the employer can extract the highest possible utilisation of human labour, this  is a big problem.

It is now standard human resources practice to guard against bullying.  The armory of weapons to fight the scourge routinely includes anti-bullying policies, equal employment opportunity (EEO)  training, interpersonal skills training, occupational health and safety audits, awareness campaigns, confidential complaints processes, and contracts that make clear the ability of the employer to dismiss the employee if claims of bullying against them are substantiated.

And yet the problem not just continues, but grows, defying both logic and any notion that HR has found the right approach to managing the problem through its various efforts to raise bullying awareness, a zero intolerance for bullying, making avenues for complaints and compensation more accessible, and having human resources as the role specifically responsible for acting on bullying.

Bullying is usually identifiable by one party that is the bully and the other, the victim:  bullies with total disregard for impact of their aggressive, controlling and overbearing behaviour; victims without sufficient skills, support, confidence or power to ward off the bully.  There will always be problems with workplace psychopaths whose purpose is to terrorise those they can.  Many victims of bullying will attest that this does not describe their experience.  Many of those who are bullied are not weak, powerless or lack confidence.  Many workplace bullies do not even realise they have become one.

Bullying succeeds as a debilitating condition because of its insidious nature.  Victims become sensitised to the environment in which the bully operates, for example, the bully pays them unexpected compliments.  The bully then creates a pattern of unsettling behaviour, such as ‘innocent’ or ‘joking’ remarks that highlight a condition to which the victim is or has been sensitised.  The victim begins to suffer detriment from the bully’s behaviour, some such examples: working longer hours, avoiding certain places, taking on tasks they cannot or ought not do.  These responses do not occur suddenly but progressively, sometimes without conscious awareness.  A victim can provide logical explanations for these responses (“I get more done if I eat at my desk”) that disconnects their behaviour from that of the bully’s.  While this helps with the victim’s self-preservation, it also distorts their frame of reference.  Over time victims may find it increasingly difficult to pinpoint exactly what the bully has done and when it has occurred, and can even find it difficult to distinguish between their own behaviour (“I made this mistake”) or state (“I haven’t been well lately”) and the bully’s behaviour as the source of their distress.  This distorted understanding of the source of their distress makes them even more susceptible to the bully’s actions.

Research indicates that around 50% of employees experience bullying to some degree.  In some industries and positions, such as trade apprentices, this is an easily comprehended statistic.  A combination of culture, lack of oversight, male dominated workplaces being the usual reasons that enables bullying in these environments to occur.  However, the Australian Public Service Commission’s own estimates indicate that as many as 30% of public service employees experience bullying.  These are not jobs in off site locations where ‘local law’ prevails; they are not untrained, unskilled workers without people skills to perform anything but the most manual of tasks; they are not unsupervised; and the workplaces are not without clear policies and procedures.  In fact the public service – as for most corporate workplaces – is structured and organised and do not lack for a human resources department.

Human resources invariably install a system for maximising employee performance by describing ‘jobs’, a wish list of what the ideal person can do.  The system improves individual performance by handing managers a range of tools: reports, key performance indicators, competencies, tests, evaluation forms, and so on;  by which they can regularly describe an employee’s actual performance, why it is inadequate and what it should look like.  Performance management is a program designed to focus on the negative.

The typical organisation is based on a hierarchy of formal relationships which take organisational precedence over the more complex social relationships that form between co-workers.  While the system relies on the social relationships for the workplace to function smoothly, it manages through the formal, hierarchical relationship (manager to worker).  Organisations with objectives to, in one way or another, achieve more with less, use the hierarchy to exert constant, consistent and persistent pressure on employees to meet ever-higher targets.

Bullying is the abuse of a power relationship.  Power, whether real or perceived, is the ability to influence a person to do something you want done, or the ability to make things happen the way you want them to happen.  The abuse does not have to be of illegitimate power, that is, power usurped to further an unauthorised agenda, as is often assumed.  It is easy to think the bully as someone who uses his power to protect his position, or hers to hide her incompetence.  Abuse of a power relationship is increasingly occurring within legitimate power where both the use of power and source of the influence are fully within the boundaries of workplace expectations.  It is this problem that this article addresses.

The worry is that organisations have over the past century created a bullying structure and the effectiveness of human resources is such that it has worked this structure so thoroughly that its natural output is the workplace bully.  Bullying does not occur just because of a pressure to perform.  Managers causing employees to feel insecure about their abilities, pointing out areas of insufficient achievement, giving critical feedback, or denying employees benefits due to targets or standards not met, are not in themselves actions that bully, as these may also be conflicts or disputes.  Endemic, systemic bullying is negative behaviour that is persistent, regular and long-lasting.  Precisely the environment that human resources seeks to develop: a systemic approach to communicating on a regular and ongoing basis the individual’s deficiencies.

Not all actions that aim to improve performance are classified as bullying.  In fact, being challenged and working under stress can create a positive and motivating work environment.  The bullying environment is different to the challenging environment in four significant ways.

  1. The organisation provides the environment for the bullying occurrences.  Research from the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration, Helsinki, Finland, found that the organisation itself provided the antecedent to bullying when: an enabling structure exists (e.g. causes inequities or frustrations); a motivating structure exists (e.g. incentive program creating internal competition); and triggering circumstances occur (e.g. downsizing and restructuring).
  2. The organisation controls the work.  By maintaining a structure in which measures and controls are managed by the organisation, individuals have low internal loci of control.  In the workplace a high locus of control (i.e. the extent to which the individual can control their work and the events at work that affect them) is directly linked to higher levels of motivation, higher occupational success, greater ability to deal with problems and lower tendency to anxiety and feelings of helplessness.  Bullies are those who deal aggressively with a low locus of control and when they experience failure, defeat or misfortune, or react to stress and anxiety are likely to blame others, or feel entitled to, or pressured enough to justify using others to resolve their problem or anxiety.
  3. Conflicting, ambiguous or difficult relationships.  The lines of an organisation chart not only grossly over-simplify the relationships in an organisation but fail to represent all the critical relationships at play in the course of people doing their jobs.  Victims of bullying often have an impaired knowledge of healthy relationships, a factor which makes some people far more vulnerable to bullying than others.  In the workplace context a healthy relationship can be difficult to achieve.  One-way, power relationships are not the basis of a healthy relationship, and this is even more problematic when managers and workers form social relationships, interdependent relationships, leader/follower relationships, coaching/mentoring relationships, compete for attention and recognition on one hand, and form alliances for protection and preservation, on the other.  There is no manual for how these relationships – some overt, some subconscious, many conflicting – placed in a pressure cooker of organisational demands should be reconciled.  It is usually allowed to play itself out between the individuals.  It is not just the employee that suffers, but also the manager; having to confront an employee’s poor performance, for example – or put differently, use the strength of a social relationship to conduct the work of a power relationship – is stressful.   Handled poorly, bullying results.
  4. Uncertain identities.  Another common characteristic of  victims of bullying is a lack of confidence about their self-identity (having been told or believe they are too plain, too slow, not assertive enough, not masculine enough, and so on).  The organisation creates identities through titles and job descriptions, and these become the individual’s identity in the workplace.  Many people struggle to assert an identity beyond their organisational label (particularly if they are being evaluated on such a narrow basis, for example, during a selection process for redundancies).  Identities can be made further uncertain when a performance label is added (“not competent”).  Bullies operate in an environment where they can compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy by focusing negative attention on their victims.  This is made easier when the organisation ‘progresses’ by finding and highlighting peoples’ deficiencies.

Organisations and their performance enforcers, human resources, can no longer go about their business so naive to the effects of their systems and structures.  While they look for bullies under every rock, determined to stamp out the problem, they may recall the story of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Instead of looking at the respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll, a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty”, they may need to look out for the smaller, younger, crueller, remorseless Edward Hyde.  They may need to remove Dr Jekyll in order to be safe from Mr Hyde.