August 5th, 2010

HR: Friend or Foe of Workplace Bullying Targets?


Another blast at HR, the “profession” from Gary Namie, the director here at WBI. This time evidence supporting the accusations is provided. A rebuttal from a well-intentioned HR practitioner follows. The debate about HR’s role in bullying cases — I say they hurt, she says they help — inspired us to create a new WBI forum to allow real people to catalog their real HR stories. Let’s gather some anecdotal facts. Soon, there will be new national data from the 2010 WBI-Zogby survey about HR. And the Drs. Namie are writing the book for employers who want to stop workplace bullying (set for spring 2011 release).

While here, take a second to take the Instant Poll on HR’s efficacy.

The arguments in both sides of the debate follow.

My, my, my. What am I to do with Human Resources, the “Dark Arts” department according to former HR Director Bruce Cameron in the documentary Fired! The Movie and in Denise A. Romano’s new book The HR Toolkit: An Indispensable Resource for Being A Credible Activist? And recently, Yale Law lecturer and Time writer, Adam Cohen, during a discussion on CNN about our anti-bullying legislation stated as a matter of fact that HR is not on the workers’ side in bullying situations (at time1:58 in the video).

Consider some evidence. The stories WBI has culled from 6,000+ hour-long sessions with targets of workplace bullying since beginning this work 13 years ago have produced only TWO (2) stories of HR bravery, courage and morality — of doing the right thing for the target and not for the bully or her or his management allies. Empirical evidence from WBI year 2000 survey of 1,300 targets suggest that HR did nothing in 51% of cases and worsened the situation for targets in 32% of cases. The bully’s bosses were slightly worse (40% did nothing, 42% increased the hurt). You say the findings came from a “nonscientific” study. True.

According to the 2007 national sample polled by Zogby for WBI, of all adult Americans who witnessed or experienced bullying themselves, 44% said that employers (most likely an HR rep) did nothing when bullying was reported and 18% said the employer made conditions worse. That was a large, scientific sample.

The anecdotal and empirical evidence combines with our on-site consulting experiences over the years with HR. Never has an anti-bullying initiative been successful in the long-term when HR was the sole driving force. In most cases, HR undermines the intervention after the Work Doctor consultants leave. In a recent intervention, the HR rep actually denigrated the internal team of peer experts who committed their time and energy to help their colleagues deal with bullying. That HR rep did so during the training, before the program could be implemented. It seems destructive HR practitioners are growing more brazen.

Here is the most frequent scenario. Bullied targets suffer for months, in silence and shame. The well-known history of local HR’s failure to help dampens targets’ eagerness to complain. Powerless to confront or to level the field of combat, they seek the employer’s help finding relief from their uninvited misery. They tell HR their story. The first question considered is if they have the right to complain. If the magic combination of membership in a protected status group by the target while the alleged bully is not also protected is not satisfied, the complainant is rejected by HR. The law simply does not apply in most cases of bullying or plain cruelty. Without laws, there is next to no employer incentive to help workers even though bullying is costly and torpedoes the mission or reason to be in business.Targets are de-legitimized. HR typically alerts the bully that she or he is being complained about. Retaliation for daring to expose the chicanery follows.

If a law (and therefore an on-the-books policy) applies, HR accepts the formal complaint. And in cases of alleged sexual harassment or racial discrimination, regardless of targets’ expectation of safety for simply asking if an anti-discrimination policy was violated, HR launches an investigation without their permission. Reprisals ensue (retaliation in 60% of cases, WBI 2009 survey). HR acts as judge and jury. Typically one person conducts the “investigation.” Petrified witnesses do not cooperate. The bully says she or he didn’t do it. Targets, by then emotional wrecks, are doubted or flatly treated like liars. The bully got away with it. Targets stew over the injustice of such sham “investigations.” In a WBI 2008 study, 40% of targets claimed that HR’s investigations were “unfair or inadequate.” With few findings in the targets’ favor, bullies quickly learn that they can act with impunity (with 89% confidence, WBI, 2009 survey). No one can, or is willing to, stop them — certainly not HR whose primary function is management support (and 72% of bullies are bosses).

That’s the reality for too many innocent targets.

Into the debate I add our 9-year old Healthy Workplace Bill Campaign, the grassroots drive to enact anti-bullying laws for the workplace. The bill holds individual offenders and employers accountable for repeated, malicious health-harming abusive conduct by bosses and co-workers. Sounds like support should be a no-brainer. Who in the world would OPPOSE legislation aimed at humanizing the workplace? Who could assume the morally dubious position of claiming that no law is needed when bullying occurs at the inarguable rate affecting 37% of adult Americans (54 million Americans in the workforce)?  Are you surprised that the HR trade association — SHRM — Society for Human Resource Management opposed the HWB in 2010.

If decent individuals who work in HR stand-up for employees and support the HWB, show me where they have written protests to SHRM to act more humanely and honorably.

Funny thing about the notion of HR as a profession. Professions require some minimal formal education, years of documented practica, licensure, and practicing in a manner subject to state regulations designed to protect consumers. Think of medicine, law, dentistry or mental health counseling as examples of professions. But HR? A 2006 poll of over 5,000 HR reps found that 46% of respondents thought that a college degree (Bachelor’s level) was NOT required to be a “HR leader.” We’re not talking about the lowest entry-level assistant or coordinator. Imagine an uneducated Vice President of HR without a degree! Perhaps just drawing a salary to differentiate oneself from a volunteer is adequate to become a self-described professional.

The trade group, SHRM, substitutes education for its own certification credentials. The acronyms are downright funny. PHR, SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources) and GPHR (Global Professional in Human Resources). HR uniforms with fancy epaulets and brass buttons to convey certificated members could be the next step for credibility. The dismal performance record certainly doesn’t match the pomp and bluster.

If HR had helped employees and proven its worth to executives by valuing their contributions beyond merely busting unions and trying to minimize damage from litigation, its practitioners would long ago have achieved parity with corporate finance executives and be beloved by unions. Every HR conference in every year has some variation of the “take us seriously, we mean it!” theme. If it’s a “profession,” it is a vain one, though lacking a healthy dose of profession-esteem.

Am I unsympathetic as an outsider? No. I was an HR director working under two putz VPs in different corporations. One fellow’s sole function was to make sure the multiple CEO’s and fellow VP’ers had company cars. He was the last one to turn out the lights when that corporation drove into the fiscal ditch and dissolved. I also know how HR Management should be run and what it could accomplish with talented people at the helm. I taught graduate university HRM courses in days past.

I share all of this background and evidence to help defensive HR reps and their apologists understand why I criticize HR as a function, a department, a service — not the few brave individuals who buck the trend and act with decency. Broad sweeping generalizations or stereotypes are only unfair if they are not true. I’ve shown above why I can say that HR, with few exceptions, is a morally bankrupt internal organizational service that contemporary organizations should consider dropping.

Any HR types who want to become citizen lobbyists (and risk their jobs for doing so, I might add) on behalf of our Healthy Workplace Bill. Find your state at this website and volunteer. If you are that committed, volunteer to become State Coordinator in the 19 states that don’t yet have a Coordinator.

Cavaet: A Denmark consulting acquaintance reports that in her country HR and the unions are aligned against bullying. HR does not defend abusers. The enemy is the destructive phenonmenon, not employees victimized by it. If only this were true in the U.S. and Canada.


The rebuttal to my diatribe comes from Sharon Sellars who took offense at my criticism of SHRM’s opposition to the HWB. Other HR folks have bitched, but she is an articulate adversary. I post below her essay with not one word changed.  She had read the SHRM anti-HWB position statement which I annotated with my comments. She resented my declaration that “HR is not in the employee advocacy business, only unions are. To say otherwise is disingenuous.” Sharon believes that HR types would make the best lobbyists for our legislation. I have emphasized in bold her incredible beliefs.


You Lost Me at Disingenuous
by Sharon Sellars, SPHR, GPHR

As an HR professional (yes, professional) for over 25 years, I have seen firsthand the impact that workplace bullying has on employees and employers.  Now, as a consultant, at least 25% of my business is either a request for anti-bullying training or an appeal to assist a client employer with what turns out to be a bullying problem.  When I found your website and learned more about the Healthy Workplace Bill, I was excited that perhaps I could become an advocate to increase awareness of this growing problem in business.

That was before I read your comments regarding the SHRM opinion.  I am a member of SHRM, along with over 250,000 other HR professionals.  That does not mean that I agree with every opinion that it generates any more than any AARP member agrees with everything AARP does or any business agrees with everything the Chamber advocates.  In your response to SHRM’s opinion, you successfully alienated every HR person who might view your website.  Your responses came across as completely anti-HR, anti-business, and pro-union.  By adding these additional ingredients into your bowl, you have created a recipe for failure.

To clarify, by being in the business for as long as I have, I have met 1000’s of people in HR and people who own businesses who sincerely care about the welfare of the employees who work with them.  The business literature is filled with documented facts regarding employers who show that with caring, rewarding, recognition-filled, family-friendly workplaces not only do we increase retention but we also increase productivity.  No matter what you think, I have been an employee advocate all of my professional life and I can introduce you to thousands of others in HR who are as well.  Your comment that only unions are employee advocates is laughable and I could write my own dissertation regarding why unions are more “big business” than any conglomerate I can think of.

My point here is NOT to get into a war of employer vs. union.  There is a bigger issue here.  I sincerely think that the Healthy Workplace Bill has merit and even if it does not pass, it could be very successful in increasing the awareness of bullying in the workplace.  Your biggest potential advocates are the HR professionals as we are the ones who have witnessed it, have had to deal with it, have had to play “CSI” to figure out what is going on.  We are the ones who investigate why a long time employee is suddenly missing work, why productivity in a certain department is down, why the new manager is trying to terminate someone who had high performance marks for previous years and most importantly why employees are enduring emotional distress at the hands of others.  Many times unearth a bully issue.  Even if one HR organization is not going to support your Bill, I believe that you are doing a disservice to your cause by writing off the individual HR professionals themselves.  By one figurative swoop of your pen, you offended the very people who can help this Bill pass.

So the real question here is – do you want the bill to pass or are you just trying to sell books or promote unions?  If it is the former, then I recommend that you rewrite your responses to the SHRM opinion into a fashion where you respond to SHRM’s opinion and not personally attack the HR professional.  If it is either of the latter two, then you are the one who is disingenuous and I will not support your Bill.

S. Sellars
SLS Consulting
Summerville, SC


Feel free to comment on either side of this issue. However, if you have a real-life encounter with HR, please record it at our new website/forum HR Failed Me. Thanks.

G. Namie

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 5th, 2010 at 8:53 pm and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Healthy Workplace Bill (U.S. campaign), Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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