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  • Desleigh White

Workplace bullying is about the bully

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

Over the last week (and more to be honest), I have been reflecting on workplace bullying.

I’ve been bullied in numerous workplaces, which to some may seem ironic given I was the head of the Human Resources function in each.

I have been trying to unpack why those people acted the way they did. Because their bullying behaviour is about them.

There was the man who saw an opportunity following my mother’s death to gossip about my perceived mental health. Who used the vulnerability I had shown in being open about the nature of my mother’s death – voluntary euthanasia / suicide to talk to everyone except me about it.

I believe he saw this as an opportunity to be part of the perceived ‘in crowd’ (refer final example). He struck me as insecure, desperate to belong. Interestingly, he told me when I called him out on his behaviour that he was a Christian, and he therefore couldn’t be a bully.

Like many bullies in my experience, when called out on it, he had nowhere to go. I raised it directly with him, with his manager present, and followed up in an email, clearly articulating the unacceptable behaviour, that I experienced it as workplace bullying and that his comments about wanting to do the Mental Health First Aid course were particularly unhelpful. He resigned and left the organisation shortly afterwards.

Moral to the story. I should not have been the person, as the one bullied, and despite my role, to have to meet with the bully about what was unacceptable about their behaviour. The organisation has a responsibility under Health and Safety legislation for everyone to have a safe workplace.

Another example was a woman in a workplace who ran hot and cold with me. Some days she would ask my opinion of how a meeting went, then when asked tell me she wanted complete honesty. I vividly remember one day telling her that in that case, she needed to stop jumping down a colleagues throat the minuet he opened his mouth. It turned out she did not really want total honesty, despite clearly stating that she did.

I had raised her behaviour with the CEO numerous times, with no action and no appetite for correcting it or even giving her constructive feedback. He would comment that she brought in the money.

She was more covert in her bullying. Telling her team not to speak with HR presumably for many reasons. When I was leaving that organisation, I had members of her team approach me and apologise for their behaviour towards me – that I had never been anything but professional with them and that they had believed her advice – it seems it was part of their onboarding. When I reflect back I think she was particularly insecure.

Moral to the story. Brilliant jerks should not be tolerated. Address the behaviour and give them an opportunity to change. If they don’t take the opportunity then manage the behaviour.

The final example for the purpose of this blog is a woman who I suspect was also insecure. She appeared to need to be liked. It was a little like Mean Gurls – when people were with her they would make cruel and cutting comments like “And you call yourself HR” when I was having a chat with staff, building rapport before meetings. When they were not with her, they were delightful humans to / with me. Gaslighting perhaps.

I reflect and think that my approach of going to each of the organisation’s locations to spend time with the teams there was threatening in some way to her. I literally would simply arrange with the local manager (her team) and work from their office for a day every so often. People would speak with me, I think they felt psychologically safe doing so. I recall one telling me I was the first human they had had working in human resources there.

On the other hand, she organised a “Listening Tour” of the offices, which was applauded widely. She went out with a team of people and had everyone join them in a room to tell them what was not working.

Whatever works for your style is good in my view. My style was more informal. I like to be approachable – it means people talk to me and I have a finger on the organisational pulse. Her view of HR seemed to be that we should be unapproachable and formal. She liked to remind me that “I used to work in HR you know ….”.

Moral of the story It is rare that others in the organisation are genuinely our competition. What about if each of us did our job to the best of our ability. And if you are going to use a HBR article on “Listening Tours” – best to admit that’s where the idea came from, don’t take credit when it wasn’t original.

All organisations need to do better with their culture. A healthy culture does not tolerate bullying and other forms of bad behaviour. In a healthy culture, people can address and discuss / debate differences.

If you are interested in curating and creating your desire culture I can point you in the direction of some talented peers who specialise in this.

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