Bullying at work: Is a formal complaint necessary?
This is one for the human resource practitioners and senior managers, those who have responsibility for the care and welfare of people but also the authority and mandate, in general, to take action and initiate procedures requiring change, monitoring, or action regarding inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. That is not to say line managers have no capability or responsibility in this area, not at all. By default in most companies, however, it generally falls to human resources and senior management to take steps over and above the norm to address issues – especially in the area of workplace bullying. After all, if we have a complaint where does it go to? Human Resources (also see Health and Safety, and People Capability – same thing). Who does Human Resources consult other than legal counsel? Senior management – keeping the executive abreast, managing risk, needing authorisation, determining desired outcomes and possible pitfalls. This is all fairly normal procedure in most organisations, and is a robust and well-proven path.
Increasingly, however, I am coming across a situation where human resources are restricted by the very thought process and habits that generate a clear policy and procedure. In other words the reliance on a formal complaint by an alleged victim to initiate a process of investigation and, hopefully, clarity and fair hearing (not all alleged bullies actually have engaged in behaviour reasonably expected to cause harm), and change (unfortunately some have). This often works well but fails, or rather limits options, when the dominant paradigm of human resource practitioners and senior managers is to rely solely on a complaint in order to investigate, monitor, and manage acute duty of care responsibilities.
What happens if someone makes no complaint and yet there is confidence that concerns regarding duty of care have validity? Is absence of a complaint sufficient defence for the organisation even though key members of the organisation are aware of concerns? While I accept that hearsay is insufficient grounds to act, and rightly so, and the process of natural justice must be adhered to surely action cannot be restricted to a formal complaint when there is clear circumstantial evidence (perhaps through informal conversations and passing on of incidents witnessed, exit interview data, staff satisfaction survey data, customer complaints, turnover, sickness absence levels etc) indicating something untoward is happening and repeatedly so. An investigation is not the only action available to human resources and executive management teams when duty of care is likely to have been breached in a way that has directly led to ill-health (ill health as defined objectively and independent of predisposing factors). There seems to be a lack of willingness to take such steps for fear of being accused of over-reaching, constructively dismissing an employee or manager, or acting on incomplete information. Yet these actions are often assumed to be the only ones on the table. They are not.
My concern is this: What is the threshold of evidence by which we can justify not doing something when we strongly believe harm is being caused? We seek a formal complaint because that satisfies the need for evidence required in order to act. My contention is that other evidence is sufficient to act in order to preserve and maintain the health of employees and that reliance on a formal complaint process alone is an abrogation of our duty of care responsibilities as corporate leaders. If we do not know what to do if we believe harm is likely being caused but have no complaint then we need to seek advice as to creative options that fall within the law and good management practice. Most of those options require skills we simply have not had to exercise before or may need to acquire, or systems and structures that may expose matters through improved monitoring. Is lack of a formal complaint sufficient justification to not act when we have strong grounds to believe harm is being caused? I doubt it.