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When the boss becomes the office bully

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As an HR manager, how would you tackle the situation if the individual causing havoc among the team was a stressed out senior colleague of yours, perhaps a board director? Would you turn to your stress management strategy or, not wanting to rock the boat by confronting what could be a 'delicate' situation, do you think the temptation to turn a blind eye would prevail?


We all react to excessive stress in different ways – mood swings, aggressive behaviour, acting out of character, for example.  It is not unusual to see stressed senior staff take out their frustrations on more junior staff. I have sat in many management meetings where members of staff have been reduced to tears by the irrational outburst of a line manager. The disappointing factor here is that, on several occasions, the HR manager has been present and not wanting to take issue with a more senior colleague, has chosen to ignore what has happened. 

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the ‘courage to challenge’, the term it uses to describe the ability to address difficult situations, is a core competency that senior HR should have. In my experience, I have yet to see this skill set widely employed by HR managers in the workplace. 

A one-off incidence of intimidation is unpleasant for the individual concerned. However, if this bullying becomes a regular occurrence there could be other implications. The common law says that employers are responsible for the general health and safety of their employees while they are at work. In addition, employers have to comply with a number of statutes, such as: The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974; The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999; the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Discrimination legislation.

Employees who are harassed and bullied for reasons other than those detailed in the discrimination law can also make a claim in the county court or high court under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Under this legislation, employees will need to demonstrate that they have suffered anxiety or distress as a result of the harassment but not that they have suffered from a recognised medical condition as a result of the harassment as under the Health & Safety at Work Act.  They will need to show a course of conduct, as opposed to a one-off act that will not be sufficient to prove the behaviour.  Be warned – these claims are particularly hard to defend as there is no ‘reasonable steps’ defence open to employers. Employers therefore have a duty of care to protect staff from the office bully, even if that bully happens to be the boss. 

Much has been written about the desire for the HR function to be recognised at board level and yet it would seem that many HR managers appear unwilling to deal with these more challenging issues. This has to change if HR managers are to secure a place on the board.

Susan Scott is a stress consultant and business psychologist at New Frontiers