Will asking for a bullying policy make me a target?

After a nasty episode with a Director at our organization (I am not a director so there is a power imbalance here), I am considering asking our HR department to adopt a workplace bullying policy similar to the one SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management) has in their archives of samples and templates.

I reviewed our employee manual and I saw that only legal, protected classes and categories are actionable by our organization — race, disability, gender, nationality, etc. There is no existing policy on bullying and uncivil behavior in general.

My question: will I be potentially seen as a troublemaker for daring to propose something like this? Will I be seen as the bad person despite the Director’s unnecessarily bullying and acrimonious behavior towards me? How best to proceed in this type of matter for an employee?

First, while bullying is very bad and should not be tolerated by any company, I’m always hesitant when someone says they are being bullied. You had “one episode” which probably wouldn’t qualify as bullying. Bullying is often defined as some using power or force to get you to do something. By the very nature of hierarchical business, a director asking you to do anything is exerting power over you, but it’s not bullying. I say this because a policy, while probably a good thing, may or may not help solve your problem.

But, that’s not your question. Your question is what will happen to you and your reputation if you bring this to HR’s attention? Now, of course, the answer to this is dependent on what type of HR department you have and how you wish to proceed. If you have a rational HR department, then suggesting you update the policy to bring it to SHRM standards should be no big deal.

If you have an irrational HR department, all bets are off. But, let’s assume rationality. So, here is what might happen.

1. You send an email to the HR business partner over your area. “Jane, I noticed that our bullying policy only prohibits bad behavior based on race, gender, etc. I know that SHRM recommends a broader policy. Is it possible to have our policy updated?”

2. Jane replies, “Thanks! I’ll look into it.”

3. You never hear from Jane again.

This is not because Jane is a bad person. It is not because Jane doesn’t agree with you. It is because, if this is a large organization, Jane’s job isn’t to develop policy. She can make a suggestion, but unless she really gets behind the cause it’s unlikely to go anywhere. If it’s a small organization, with a small HR department, Jane probably has 300 things on her plate and revising a policy is probably last on her list of things to do today.

Now, you can go to step 4, which is to follow up with Jane. If she starts to think it’s a really good idea, you might get somewhere. But if not? The end. But no harm is done to you or your reputation. You haven’t asked for something absurd and you haven’t been a jerk about it. (Bully the HR person in order to get an anti-bullying program is never a good idea.)

So, let’s try another option.

1. You send an email to the HR business partner over your area. “Jane, I wanted to tell you about a run-in I had with Director Steve. Steve wanted X done and when I tried to explain that we wouldn’t have the necessary data until Tuesday he screamed at me and threatened to write me up and questioned my parentage. I thought this ran afoul of our bullying policy, but when I double checked I learned that we have no policy prohibiting his behavior unless he was screaming at me because of my race or other immutable characteristics. I’d like to see our policy expanded to cover all inappropriate situations. Can you help?”

2. Jane replies, “Oh dear. Really? Steve did that? Well, that’s normal Steve. Just try to ignore him.” Because remember, you’ve acknowledged that his behavior isn’t against policy and (this next part is really important) HR isn’t independent. Jane has to deal with Steve too. And, in many cases, Steve is further up the hierarchy than Jane is.

3. You never hear from Jan again.

This is very common in this type of situations, because even though Jane would like to eliminate the bully director Steve, she’s seen his performance appraisal and the numbers for his department and he brings in results. If she brings this to Steve’s boss, it’s likely you’ll be blamed. Jane knows this, so she lets it go nowhere. If Steve is a low performer you have more of a chance.


3. (Alternate universe). Jane conducts an investigation and learns that Steve is a constant jerk. She speaks with Steve’s boss, who fires Steve and harmony is restored to the universe. But that policy? Not likely to get written. I mean, it can happen, but it’s not high on anybody’s list or it would already be policy.

So, is there any hope?

Of course! But, you need to go around HR (or get to the most senior HR person) and get a champion from a senior staff member who can make it Jane’s job to worry about this policy. If you know somebody in power who would be on your side, you can start there, recommending the new policy. Volunteer to do some of the legwork involved and get yourself assigned to a team (probably headed by Jane) that is focused on revising such policies.

What you have to be careful about is that you need to project that you’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do  and not because Steve was mean to you. Like it or not, the latter will be seen as whining while the former will be seen as altruism.

To make a long story short (too late!) the chances of you suffering because of this are pretty slim as long as you present it as the right thing for the company to do and not as revenge on Steve. Just don’t expect quick results. Also, don’t expect that Steve will even think what he did would violate the new policy. He probably sees himself as being direct.

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13 thoughts on “Will asking for a bullying policy make me a target?

  1. I don’t understand why everyone wants an anti-bullying policy at work. If someone has a bad work environment, do they really feel this policy will change it?

    Here is how the story (often) goes when there is a policy-
    “My boss is mean to me. It is against our policy that says “Everyone will work in harmony and no one will be mean.” -Employee
    “Your boss says he wasn’t mean, and was just trying to get work done.” -HR
    “Well he was a jerk, and policy says that employees are to be respected.’ -Employee
    “He says he was not disrespectful. Go back to work.” -HR
    “Aren’t you independent? Can you fire him?” -Employee
    “HA HA HA HA. Oops, sorry, I meant to say, I’ll look into it.” -HR

    1. Policies rarely change anything. Bad people think they are exempt from the policy. Good people don’t do bad things.

  2. Many thanks for answering my question Suzanne! Just to give some context to the situation:

    – I am four months into my new job. I just got past my 90 day evaluation period. By all accounts I passed with flying colors with my boss
    – The Angry Director is in another department. What happened is he angrily flipped out at me in a staff meeting and turned something that could have been asked and resolved in a civil, private meeting into an acrimonious argument and embarrassing scene in front of all staff.
    – The Angry Director then sent a series of nasty emails copying the CEO, the COO and my boss and me.
    – Based on his emails, what he envisions as a massive, organization-wide disruption involving hundreds of documents and materials is not accurate. The project I am working on involves under three dozen documents and I have a work plan ready on how I will go about implementing the project. I shared this info copying everyone as well.
    – I got no response from him to my reply
    – He could have gotten this information just by asking weeks ago. Instead he went completely over the top in what I perceive as a deliberate and hostile attempt to embarrass me and discredit the credibility I am trying to grow in the organization.

    Even if he has calmed down and he was reprimanded by management (they told me they will have a talk with him) I see in the employee handbook that I have no protection on my side if he holds a grudge and I now have a target on my back. The reason why I ask about a bullying policy is absent one, the employee really has nothing that he or she can use to effectively fight back against retaliation.

    1. Thank you for the context, it adds a lot to what you are talking about.
      1. Based on your e-mail, you are not only new to your job but new to the company, too. You may not be fully aware of the internal politics and regardless of where one works, there are ALWAYS politics.
      2. The Angry Director may have a history of making scenes and not resolving things in a civil, private manner. The varying degrees of flipout may depend on this person’s relationships with his superiors, including the CEO and COO, peers, subordinates, and level of self-importance. But also consider that this person may be feeling vulnerable for something that you do not know about and his behavior may be motivated by something else entirely.
      3. It is never wise to hit Reply All in response to an angry e-mail. It is often an auto response as part of feeling defensive and wanting to make yourself look competent. Unfortunately, it may hit a bunch of buttons that don’t need punching.
      4. In replying, you may have made the director look foolish, which may only make things worse.
      5. Directors often have so many things on their plates that they cannot remember details for everything and may not know that things are being worked on. But again, may have an agenda of his or her own and may be attempting to use you to his benefit in a twisted way.

      As I read it, it is not bullying, per se. It could be a one-off. It could be serial jerkery. It could be a test. Directors are often filled with a sense of self-importance and ego that worked to their benefit to get them to where they are. Hard-driving, hard-charging, go-getters often ignore social norms. Further, his reply may be motivated by an idea that this project may add to an already overburdened plate. Responding to these kinds of things is a delicate business. Here are my thoughts:

      1. Future issues need to be taken to your manager prior to hitting reply. There are likely things going on behind the scenes that you do not know about.
      2. Hitting Reply All could give credence to whatever argument he is making; could make your boss look bad; and very likely will not give you bonus points. Further, regardless of who he copied, your response needs to be measured and include as few people as possible.
      3. Hitting reply at all is problematic because e-mails can be subpoenaed. It is better for these things to be handled in person, but by a person with more authority, like your boss.
      3. Sit back and watch interactions between this Director, other employees, and your boss. Try to get a feel of what is going on and take that into consideration before interjecting.
      4. Before passing go, in other words, right now, prepare a summary of what happened, who was involved and/or in the room at the time, sign it, send a copy of it to your work e-mail and home e-mail, and then take a copy to HR. Tell them that you would like to voice a concern as to how you were treated in that meeting and tell them you were uncomfortable not only with being called out in that meeting but then being called out in an e-mail to the C-level.
      5. To the issue of retaliation, this is less clear cut. In employment law, being disciplined or terminated for retaliation generally has to do when one has blown a whistle on some kind of malfeasance or wrongdoing and you were a) looking out for the common good and/or b) protecting customers, the public, and/or other employees. As an example, you have direct knowledge of wastewater being poured into the local creek or that money is being taken against company rules or regulations. If it should come to it, a case could be made that you were terminated for reporting mistreatment by a member of management. But it becomes problematic for a number of reasons, including not reporting it to HR and/or your boss and not giving them enough time to reply.

      It is perfectly natural to want to stand up for yourself, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing but dealing with upper management can be a sticky wicket, especially when you’re new. I would be interested to hear what happens!

      1. I cannot understand the amount of column inches spent in this comment warning about use of “Reply All.” It seems to me that the effect of this advice is to let others control the narrative. If the point is to not upset Angry Director, isn’t it too late?
        (I suppose I’m assuming that the response can be calm and professional.)

  3. Op, I am afraid that a policy against office bullying gives you little to fight back against retaliation as well.

    All (or nearly all) offices are opposed to bullying, with or without a policy to say so. But every office has a different interpretation of what constitutes bullying. Policies in this area are remarkably ineffective, unlike a policy on overtime which says, “if employees are required to work overtime without seven days notice they are entitled to double pay,” which is clear and (usually) enforced. Anti-bullying policies are very airy.

    I think you are better at dealing with your particular issues with your particular employment, rather than trying to have a company-wide policy instituted, that will be both very difficult to get put into place, and unlikely to solve your problems.

  4. And then there is this….
    I had an oppositional, passive/agressive employee on a PIP who filed a grievance with the union and HR that I had been bullying her. All statements that were made
    That I had been
    Belittling and making disrespectful comments
    Excessive monitoring, criticizing, or nitpicking her work
    Deliberately overloading with work that she wasn’t responsible for
    That I was purposely undermining her work by setting her up to fail
    That I purposely withheld information needed to perform her job and meet expectations
    That I actively excluded her from team work and demanded that she stop speaking to other workers in the dept.

    None of the examples she gave were true. In the investigation by HR she was unable to substantiate her claims with documentation or witnesses.

    After a very long discipline process, she was gone.

    About a month ago, I attended a workshop called Addressing Bullying Behavior in the Workplace produced by our office of equity and diversity. Turns out that each point of her complaint was lifted directly from the case studies.

    Just thought I’d share how with the best intentions of helping workplace culture caused distress.

    1. Yep. Anyone that thinks anti bullying policies won’t be manipulated by bullies themselves is crazy. Good people don’t need policies and bad people manipulate the policies for their own benefits.

  5. Many thanks everyone for their feedback, especially Daniel! I really appreciate Daniel’s advice on being smart and attuned to the politics of the place and being observant of the behaviors and interactions of the Angry Director with other staff and other people in the hierarchy.

    Yes, the Angry Director is well-known for being difficult, argumentative, combative and hot-headed. He hasn’t been known for angry outbursts in meetings (mine was the first time he displayed this behavior) but he is well-known for jerky behavior and not being a good listener and not a good communicator.

    I am trying to pout this all behind me and to try and concentrate on work. For the time being, I will try not to take this guy’s behavior personally as he is known to be an equal opportunity jerk to everyone through many years.

    1. I have to say that your trying to “pout” this behind you is one of the best typos I have seen in a while!

      I think you’re on the right track. If everyone knows he’s nuts, then they know it’s not about you.

  6. Why are you selecting articles like this as examples of workplace aggression? I am sure you have received much more serious, long-term cases. Those are the real tricky, challenging ones that cannot be so easily dismissed. Let’s kick it up a notch and discuss the unique challenges of dealing with something on that level.

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