Case Study: Inside the mind of HR Professionals

by Jul 21, 2012

As a professional speaker who has made presentations to over hundreds of HR professionals, as well as professionals in many other areas, I assert that every single “workplace bullying workshop” attendee will fall into one of three categories:

1. The “Oh my gosh!!!! Thank you!!!” Category – These are people who have been treated with disrespect and aggression at work. They approach me at the end of my presentation, often in tears, infinitely thankful that I am advocating for them and that I have given them the information they need to move forward with their situation.

2. The “Hmmmm… I’m not so sure bullying exists” Category – These are people who may have witnessed a little disrespect at work but are unsure that bullying really happens among adults or that the resulting psychological implications I identified during the presentation are really that serious. These people may be open to persuasion with more information.

3. The “People who claim they’re bullied are poor performers who are upset that they’re boss is calling them out” Category – These are the attendees who speak out during my presentations, often very aggressively in fact. They are convinced bullying doesn’t exist, and blame the target for poor performance and not having thicker skin. They also insist (incorrectly of course) that bullying is already illegal and laws against bullying would encourage unnecessary litigation.

Until now, I have been unable to really articulate these three responses for readers of my blog. But recently I participated in an online forum at Workforce Management website about the topic of workplace bullying, and because I gained so much insight into the mind of my third category HR professional when it comes to this touchy subject, I thought I’d share parts of the forum discussion with you.

If you are a target of aggressive behaviors at work thinking about talking with your HR manager, this post might help you gain some understanding about how your HR manager might respond to your complaint so that you can be prepared to counter it.

As I mentioned, people in my third category – people who don’t think bullying exists – were abundant in the online forum, as evidenced by these comments:

“There seems to be a growing trend that every time someone’s boss yells at them it’s a workplace conflict that also suggests the boss is a bully. That may occasionally be true but more often than not, in over 30 years of workplace experience, I have observed it is an under producing or non-producing employee (that includes performance issues).”

“Honestly, I read a lot of posts on a different forum that is open to the public and has a lot of employees posting their situations about bosses bullying employees and 99% of them are such that I can see by their posts what the issue is — low performance, too much time off, their attitude in the postings, etc. In my 20 year career, I can honestly tell you that I have seen 1 bully boss in any organization that I have worked with. Out of hundreds…. “

“There are those that think they are bullied because the employer expects them to be at work on time consistently. Because the employer doesn’t take all the excuses for missed work and productivity. Or they take exasperation and criticism as bullying.”

And after being attacked by a few of the HR professionals in the forum for asserting that bullying is a real problem:

“Suggesting bullying is legal in the US demonstrates the focus (Catherine) has. It isn’t to teach people how to manage conflict in the workplace, rather, it is to exploit conflict in the workplace for (her) own profit motive. In short, (she) channel’s (her) energy to exploit a created victim instead of teaching that individual how to improve their performance and also manage everyday natural conflict.”

“I am suspecting that the poster is feeling bullied because we are not validating her perspective. We are not jumping on the bandwagon of proving how much bullying really takes place in most workplaces.”

I sought information about what these HR professionals would do if faced with a complaint by an employee who claimed his boss was bullying him. The answers were disturbing:

“I would speak with the employee about changes that often occur when bosses change.”

“I suspect that due to the friendly relationship posed by the (original poster)… there might have been some stuff that the old boss let slide, rather than confront. Or maybe it just wasn’t important to the old boss but is to the new. That’s the nature of different bosses and learning the new style/way, even if you don’t agree with it.”

“Honestly, I would tell this employee that they should view the position as if THEY started a new job– but with experience. If they can’t handle the new (management) style, then unless they want to try to go over their boss’s head (which can often be a career limiting move because SOMEONE higher above CHOSE to put this person into the manager’s position and you might never be sure who was for it), I would suggest they look elsewhere for employment.”

“If I thought it was a manager issue, I would do some extra management training, but if this were a person with education and experience, I would NOT automatically assume it was the boss’s issue. But rather an issue of the employee not being able to handle the change. Change is never easy.”

Another participant then pointed out that:

“The difficult part of (this) approach… is why you are willing to make assumptions that favor the organization, but you aren’t willing to make any such similar assumptions on behalf of the employee.”

To which the response from one poster was:

“I don’t know many companies that choose to put inexperienced, uneducated, untrained people into management positions, but I know plenty of employees who feel like THEY should have been promoted OR that THEY know more than the new boss or that their way is the only way to do something.”

“I have seen more issues with the underlings not being able to handle the change than the manager.”

“So yes, it is my instinct to counsel the employee on how to deal with the change than to counsel the manager. Unless there is some direct evidence that it is the manager’s issue.”

Clearly this HR professional would not buy it if a target of bullying were to report their manager’s behavior. The target would indeed be in the hot seat and blamed for the problem. The manager, the one exhibiting unprofessional behaviors, would be left to continue treating others with disrespect.

This group of posters, filled with my third category – people who think bullying simply doesn’t exist – was hard to persuade. Nothing I said could convince them that bullying is real. They even accused me of exploiting a fad and creating a sea of victims for my own monetary and professional benefit. But it doesn’t matter if they believe me or not; what matters if is they believe you when you report your abusive manager at work.

Ultimately, this conversation was indeed a major learning experience for me. In my years of experience I have never really gained a true understanding of why an HR professional would be so utterly resistant to the idea that bullying might actually exist in the workplace. I was enlightened by these comments:

“I was in HR when the diversity fad developed, and suddenly every fringe consultant was an expert in diversity and offering their services to help implement diversity programs. They were aggressive – if you didn’t have a diversity program, then somehow your company was uncaring, insensitive, even Neanderthal in your approach to business. Diversity programs have yet to produce any measurable benefit, yet business spent huge amounts of money on it.“

“So it goes with HR fads – it seems like HR is plagued with them every 5 years or so. Some get a lot of publicity, like diversity, others don’t. All fade into oblivion, some mercifully sooner rather than later.”

“HR has seen a bunch of fads. I would agree bullying is but one more.”

In addition, one poster pointed out that aggressive behaviors at work have potential liability for an employer – damages that should certainly be taken into consideration. As someone who has also made that argument, and attempted to quantify the damage a workplace bully might cause, the response was of great interest to me:

“OMG, HR professionals have been fighting this image for years. It is called the Chicken Little complex.

Legal fees are a cost of doing business for corporations. Frivolous lawsuits are a source of potential income for plaintiffs attorneys; “If they settle, even for nuisance value, I get something.” The problem isn’t managers. The problem is unscrupulous attorneys, consultants who embellish reality and a sub-culture that says if I sue I win regardless.

In 30+ years I have never lost a lawsuit. I’ve settled several for “nuisance value.”

To sum all this up, HR professionals have seen an array of fads come and go. According to the participants in this forum, given the number of fads in their many years of experience, bullying just seems like one more. For this reason, it might be hard for them to take your complaint seriously.

These individuals were also not intimidated by the numbers. They weren’t buying that a lawsuit is a real threat when a report of bullying goes unaddressed. To them, a lawsuit is just the cost of doing business, and because one poster in particular had never lost a lawsuit against an employee, she was ready to go toe to toe. Lawsuits didn’t even make a dent in her perspective.

So what’s the lesson here? It is up to you, the target, the reporter of aggressive behaviors at work, to prove your case in a major way. As stated by one poster:

“Unfortunately HR and management usually do NOT have the ability to go “personal” with employees. To dig deep into the reasons and feelings and emotions. To smooth over hurt feelings. To babysit one who is feeling persecuted. At some point, it DOES need to get back to the business of running the company and working towards that goal and needs to be less about feelings and more about realistic expectations and being productive and putting personal feelings/perspectives aside.”

The most important things you can do for yourself, before you file a complaint with your manager or HR manager, is to:

1. Document everything, and be sure to stick to the facts. Avoid documenting your emotions. Do not document how you felt, document the bad behavior. Focus on the bully, not on you. You are your performance already going to be under the spotlight, so don’t make your grievance about you – make it about the bully’s unprofessional behavior. HR is not in the business of making you feel good, they are in the business of helping the organization run. I hate to say it, but your feelings are irrelevant to them. The bullying manager’s unprofessional behavior is relevant to them if you can prove it’s hurting performance.

2. If possible, gather evidence from co-workers and other managers about your performance. Based on my conversation with the HR professionals in the forum, your performance is going to be called into question. If you can find a way to prove you are a top-performer, whether by emails or memos from others you work with or a stack of performance evaluations from previous managers, I think you will find that evidence useful during your conversation.

3. Attempt to resolve the issue yourself first. In any situation, when you have a problem, issue, or question it is important that you approach your manager with your problem, issue, or question with some idea of a solution. No manager wants to hear, “I have a problem, can you tell me what to do?” There isn’t a manager on the planet that wouldn’t prefer, “I have a problem. I have tried A and B and they haven’t worked. I was thinking about doing C and D but was hoping for your input.” This shows that you are solution oriented and able to think things all the way through on your own – and those are qualities of a top notch, high performing employee.

4. Be prepared for the conversation. Know what you want to accomplish as a result of your complaint. What is it that you want the HR manager to do for you? What exactly are you going to say? What solutions can you offer? Never go into your HR manager’s office to complain – go in there to complain and provide options.


If you’re interested, you can read the entire conversation at the forum on Workforce Week.

Do you know how much money chronically bad behavior costs your company? Spoiler alert – it’s a LOT higher than you want it to be. Download our data and worksheet to see how it’s costing your organization and what you can do to fix it.


About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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