Caitlin Flanagan is an American writer and social critic who contributes to “The Atlantic”,   an American magazine and multi-platform publisher which covers news, politics, culture, technology, health, and more, through its articles. In the most recent on-line issue, Flanagan poses the question, “For 30 years, we’ve trusted human-resources departments to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment. How’s that working out? “

Her initial thinking was that the answer to the “failures” of HR as perceived by the HR professionals seemed to be more HR. However she concluded that she “had it all wrong - the simple and unpalatable truth is that HR isn’t bad at dealing with harassment, HR is actually very good at it.” It makes sense if you read the article and it does draw on a number of interesting case studies and analysis of why there seems to be such a difference in the perception of HR to the reality. Although Flanagan’s experience is solely within the United States, the parallels with the UK are stark.

One case study concludes that, “fairly or not, HR is seen as the division of the company that slows things down, generates endless memos, meddles in employees’ personal business, holds compulsory “trainings,” and ruins any fun and spirit-lifting thing employees come up with.” Flanagan, however, states that “the real reason many workers don’t love human resources is that while the department often presents itself as functioning like a union—the open door for worker complaints, the updates on valuable new benefits—it is not a union. In a strong job market, HR is the soul of generosity, making employees feel valued and significant. But should the economy change, or should management decide to go in another direction, HR can just as quickly become assassin as friend.”

In the UK we have similar polarised perceptions which often starts with a mistrust of HR which then changes to greater respect the more a person interacts with them. As former full-time trade union representative it was HR people who were most influential in my development from a rather angry young man who knew nothing about the business or the people in it to a person trusted with the most sensitive and confidential information whose input was highly valued. The catalyst for the change was the way I saw HR professionals deal with the most challenging individual issues and, in particular, those involving perceptions of bullying and all forms of harassment.

Flanagan reports that, in the USA, HR training and procedures relating to bullying and harassment are “too focused on protecting the employer from liability and not focused enough on ending the problem.” I can see understand why many people in the UK think the same but my own experience is quite different. While I actually experienced  one case of accused sexual harassment where a senior manager invited the two parties into an office and promptly left when they arrived in order that they could “sort things out amongst themselves”, that happened without the knowledge or sanction of the HR department. Yet, that manager tried to deflect the blame on to them.

This led us to think about how we could improve both the identification of a problem like this and a solution that would focus on a solution. We identified four problems:

  • The grievance procedure was more suited to resolving less serious issues than bullying or harassment
  • The grievance procedure could be entered into without a second opinion as to the potential outcomes and, therefore, consequences
  • The grievance procedure did not allow a “cooling off” period after a second opinion is provided
  • Once the formal grievance procedure was invoked, the issue could not be resolved informally

Although it may sound like a contradiction in terms, we concluded that the key to a fair and efficient bullying and harassment procedure was the formalising of a clearly understood and properly resourced informal process. The policy we developed allowed any member of staff who felt they were being bullied or harassed to have an opportunity to talk their issues, on a strictly confidential basis, through with an impartial but trained designated colleague who would act as a sounding board. The main focus for the colleague would be to:

  • Allow the member of staff to air their concerns in confidence
  • Help the member of staff to reflect on whether they are actually being bullied or being managed clumsily
  • Help the member of staff to reflect on whether they are actually being harassed or experiencing a reasonable amount of pressure
  • Help the member of staff to understand that any formal accusation would be defended vigorously by the accused
  • Help the member of staff reflect on what their desired outcome of any formal process would be

It was stressed that this was not a means of suppressing legitimate claims of bullying or harassment. In fact, it gave greater credence to the ones that were carried forward into the formal process. At the same time, HR were able to clarify their real purpose which was to ensure fairness once the formal procedure was entered into. With that initial role delegated to the trained colleagues, HR were able to move away from the perception of being the unsatisfactory “agony aunt” to being a strategic and fair problem solver – a role in which they excelled.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

[email protected]

07780 697024

Note - The IPA’s Proposal for Handling Cases of Bullying & Harassment is available on our website. Please get in touch if you are interested in more support on this issue.