Articles logo

Bullying and Harassment Complaints: Don't just ask who and what. Investigating the why, where, when and how in order to inform future practices.

By Dr. Karen McIvor

There is no doubt that the process of a bullying and harassment complaint takes its toll on all concerned. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable that, for many organisations, once the complaint has run its course, the priority is to get back to business and move on as quickly as possible. It is understandable, but it is also a mistake. More enlightened organisations use the experience as a learning opportunity: not least to identify any organisational or cultural factors that may have contributed to the problem in order to reduce the likelihood of future repetition.

Conducting a bullying and harassment investigation focussed not on apportioning blame, but on the causes and progress of events can provide valuable insights as to any shortcomings in the current practices, procedures and policies. The inquiry should extend beyond those directly involved to include observers, other team members and managers in order to gauge attitudes towards bullying and harassment and perceptions of its causes and treatment, including the availability and effectiveness of interventions. Organisations brave enough to undertake this exercise should be prepared for a few surprises, especially if they think that they have all the necessary interventions in place.

There is no doubt that bullying and harassment problems respond best to early intervention, before the parties become entrenched in their position and before the issue becomes the source of bifurcation in the group as people feel obliged to take sides. For this reason it is important to find out how, and why, the problem progressed to the formal complaint stage: whether this was because of lack of awareness or issues with support or procedures.

The complaints process, investigation, recommendations and their implementation should also come under the microscope, both in terms of satisfaction and effectiveness. Particular regard should be given to perceptions of impartiality, trust, fairness, consistency, communications, and timeliness as these may be seen as reflecting the organisation's attitude towards bullying and harassment, and its commitment to addressing such behaviour.

It is possible that the relevance of organisational factors will also be identified in a number of ways. For instance, in the course of my work I have heard many suggestions as to the causes of bullying and harassment. The instant response is often to put the blame on individuals and on personality. This phenomenon is well known in the field of psychology. The explanation lies in the information readily available to us. We tend to attribute the behaviour of others to their disposition because we don't have access to their reasoning, for example we don't know whether they themselves are being bullied, are under pressure, etc. Similarly we put our own actions down to circumstances. For this reason it is important to give the opportunity to all parties to explore the background to bullying. The explanations gathered in this way include workload, personality, stress, behavioural modelling, organisational change, inexperienced managers, lack of support, weak management etc. It is notable that the majority of these have an organisational component, yet in terms of anti-bullying interventions and responses the predominant emphasis is on the individual.

Focussing on the individual for a solution to a broader problem leads to a topical approach to what can actually be a systemic problem. It is all very well to use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) counselling to help targets of bullying to develop coping strategies, but it will not deal with the wider organisational issues. The implication of such a narrow vision is to be seen in the limited effectiveness of the organisational strategies, which are more likely to have developed organically as a reaction to individual outbreaks than as a pre-planned comprehensive package.

I hope this article has provided food for thought. Complaints and investigations are expensive and time consuming. If you have a case that has progressed to the investigation stage, it makes sense to get something positive out of the experience.

Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2009

Return to list of articles - Return to Bullying999 Index

Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2009

Tel: 01252 712062 Email: