Lack Of Objective Definition Of Bullying A Challenge For HR Because Context Is Everything

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One of the biggest challenges for HR in dealing with bullying, both preventatively and when complaints are lodged, is that there is no objective and universally accepted definition of the BEHAVIORS that constitute bullying. That means that whether you are trying to help an organization become more sensitized to bullying issues, or investigate complaints, almost everything falls into the gray area, at least activities that are not deemed to be criminal offenses.

It's important to grasp that bullying cannot ever be defined by a black and white set of behaviors. In that sense it's much like sexual harrassment, where the perceptions of the "recipient" are critical in determinig whether something is harrassment or not. In most sexual harrassment definitions, you find the term "unwanted sexual advances" to anchor things in the perceptions of the alleged victim.

Bullying though is even more difficult than sexual harrassment, because some aspects of the latter can be defined in more objective ways, so if the behavior appears, then it's what it appears to be.

You Have To Look At Context, Not Absolute Behavior

The same behavior can be construed as bullying, friendly bantering, a sign of aggression and hatred, or a sign that bonding is taking place between employees. And a lot more. It's all going to depend on the context, and when you start looking at context it all goes pretty subjective. And complex. for example, there's been a lot of controversy over bullying occurring on the Miami Dolphins football team, with both recipient and "bully" commenting, in addition to a number of other players, supporting one or the other (usually the "bully", Richie Incognito).

Coming out from this are a number of questions that relate to context:

  1. When you have a culture that stresses aggression, does it then become "the norm" for bullying to occur, and if that's the case, should it be acceptable, because, to most in that culture, it is OK?
  2. From what value perspective does one investigate these kinds of things? Is it to establish what would be reasonable treatment by reasonable people? Do you look at the dominant culture to justify bad behavior?
  3. Should we expect people in an organization (let's say the NFL) to abide by the informal rules, even if the way things are done "around here" would be reasonable interpreted as aggression or bullying by those from outside the organization?
  4. If the two people involved in bullying, one the target and one the "bully, are OK with it, and find the process acceptable, does that absolve an organization from addressing the problem, since others in that organization may be adversely affected by simply observing it as bystanders?


No Easy Answers On Workplace Aggression

As a society we're relatively new to the workplace bullying issue, much as we were with sexual harrassment some decade or more ago, so many HR departments are having to learn as they go. While sexual harrassment laws have been around for a while, so HR could take their cues from the legislation, only a few jurisdictions (but growing) have anti workplace bullying laws, and there's really not a strong history regarding their effectiveness. So HR staff involved in anti-bullying in the workplace, are in effect, pioneers, and that isn't an easy thing.

It's not going to get a whole lot easier, when one wants to change "behavior" when the behavior cannot be defined and delineated except what is often a case by case basis, because of the complete importance of context. It will be interesting.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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