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Lynne Curry: When facing a bully, insist on help from HR

Q: We have a dirty little secret in our company. Our comptroller is a no-holds-barred bully. Cross him and your work life isn't worth living. His employees and other department heads either knuckle under or leave.

I refuse to let him know he intimidates me. Although he scares me and I've thought of quitting, I've decided I'm not going to let him run me out of a job I like. He's not used to others standing up to him, and he's making my life a living hell.

We have a code of conduct in our company that supposedly addresses this. I met with our director of human resources and laid out the case showing the many ways in which the comptroller violates the code of conduct. She asked, "What do you expect me to do?"

I said, "Investigate," and played a tape for her of a conversation in which the comptroller called me a c-word and threatened me. She attacked me for taping him, saying that violated the code of conduct, and told me I'd face disciplinary action if I ever taped him again. She then described my issues with the comptroller as a personality conflict.

I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't to be told to put up and shut up. Where did I go wrong?

A: You didn't.

According to Senior Professional in Human Resources Karen Livingston, "Your HR director totally dropped the ball. When a company defines what behavior violates company culture, HR needs to aid employees who identify problems."

Although many senior managers and HR directors act to purge bullies from organizations, others view allegations such as those you've made as messy hot potatoes they'd prefer dodging. Senior managers may give little credence to bullying tales, as bullies often produce great short-term results and also target employees and peers rather than those higher on the food chain. Thus, some who bring bullying situations involving high-level managers to the attention of senior management experience "kill the messenger."

Your HR director attempted to squash you, disingenuously ignoring your evidence while attacking how you gathered it. Although not all those who fling the bully label do so accurately nor credibly, you had evidence.

Even in organizations that lack codes of conduct or anti-bullying policies, HR managers can offer bully victims needed assistance. Those bullied need to be listened to, to have their evidence evaluated and to have their confidentiality respected. HR managers can ask those targeted by bullies what they want to have happen and advise them of their options, thus allowing them some measure of control.

Although bullying isn't illegal in most states, HR can address bullying situations using multiple strategies. HR managers can conduct 360-degree reviews to provide those interacting with bullying managers the opportunity to provide confidential feedback concerning problem behavior. When provided credible evidence, HR managers can investigate allegations and recommend discipline, improvement-oriented coaching or termination for bullies. HR managers can mediate between alleged bullies and their targets. If the bully then violates the mediation agreement, it makes disciplining or terminating the bully easier.

In short, you didn't go wrong. Your organization, however, heads down a problem path if it doesn't correct this situation. HR managers and senior executives need to provide all employees a workplace in which respect and dignity, rather than petty tyrants, rule.