Three Symptoms HR Should Recognise as Bullying – Know Who to Believe

it leaves people feeling sad and betrayed when HR don't properly investigate bullying

People feel sad and betrayed when HR don’t properly investigate bullying

Sarah was being bullied (the back story is here.. Based on a kind colleague’s advice she acted quickly and early to get ready to fight back and to be better able to protect herself.

Sarah sought help from HR. However, this proved a disappointing experience as it was characterised by a systemic failure to recognise the difference between prickly situations and a bullying campaign.

Failure 1 Poor Investigation

ACAS definition of bullying:

Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

This sort of behaviour may appear as bullying or assertive management depending on your viewpoint. Nevertheless, 3 examples of Sarah’s complaints as quoted from the HR report suggest that this was bullying:

  1. Experiencing victimisation, and witnessing other being victimised:“Sarah witnessed Nigel bully two other members of the team, one which took place in a Team Meeting”
  2. Threats and comments made about job security that lacked foundation:“Nigel announced that his team would be growing and that there would be plenty of work for everyone. Nigel then after the meeting told Sarah that it was extremely unlikely that her contract would be renewed and that she could have some time off work for interviews”
  3. Unfair treatment

    ” … Nigel is very aggressive and is trying to divide and rule by cleaning out the existing team and bringing in his own new team”

    “Being bullied felt like being stabbed in the back”

HR intentions in Sarah’s case while honourable failed to identify that bullying occurred. Later events showed this and the investigator admitted that:

“Nigel was so plausible, he managed me”

An investigation needs a structure and to use a template of questions to ensure that everyone involved has the opportunity to discuss their role in events and its impact on them. The questions ought to be based on who, what, where, when, why and how. They should hone in on personally observed situations and also upon the role, actions and feelings of the interviewee.

Circumstances may arise where there is a personality disordered bully involved. Therefore, it is useful for investigators to keep this in mind. It is important since personality disorder is revealed in a steady pattern of behaviour and resulting in relationship troubles, often evidenced in their HR file. Some personality disordered people are aware of the impact of their behaviours and others are not. Further, some may be deliberately inconsiderate. Essentially, for a personality disordered individual interpersonal issues are not their problem, they are always the other person’s. Motivation for their behaviour may be well concealed, as they may have learnt to camouflage it, especially to more senior people. More about disordered personality and bullying will feature in a future blog post.

There is evidence in Sarah’s story that the bully may have been personality disordered. There is no evidence that this crossed the investigators’ minds. Dealing with personality disordered employees is challenging, so get help from an occupational psychologist or a mediator.

Failure 2 Process

It beggars belief to say this, the investigation found no evidence of bullying.

This left Sarah to use the only recourse left: mediation. In fact this was not mediation; rather it was a personal grievance process. That Sarah continued shows how determined she was not to be a victim. In my experience this is rare. Sarah said the turning point was when:

“Nigel said he did not know I was taken on as the boss’ social media specialist. I said it was common knowledge that he had applied for the job.” HR looked stunned.

That this crucial piece of evidence took so long to surface was appalling.

Things HR can do to make a difference

  • Get trained to investigate bullying and grievances, include line managers
  • Get help when the process is challenge

In fairness, in Sarah’s case the organisation’s culture limited HR’s scope. Organisations need to develop a safe bully-free culture. This culture both makes ethical sense, and engages people at work. High organisational engagement results in far more productivity. This will be discussed in a future blog.

If you need help contact MWR Consulting Ltd on 07779 345 499, or

Reach us at 07779 345 499,

Marjorie Raymond

Marjorie Raymond

T: 07779 345 499


We have experience in developing senior managers and their team members – both on an individual and team level – so they can develop practical approaches that encourage positive, constructive behaviour. This, in turn, leads to the development of positive beliefs and values. We are ready work with you, to help you get the best out of your people.

Here are some examples of approaches that can be used and tailored to your individual needs:

  • Support if you are being bullied, or have a member of your organisation who has made a bullying complaint
  • Mediation, to address workplace conflict
  • Personal development activities
  • Individual and group coaching…Coaching – a powerful way of developing people
  • Psychometric assessment, which can identify strengths as well as derailing behaviours and also include 360 degree feedback
  • Structured module for understanding the psychological contracts in your organisation, both at an individual or team level
  • Straight Talking: …Straight Talking create change through conversations
  • Special projects, secondments and assignments