When the Bully at Work is the Boss – of HR – Workplace Violence

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There is a great deal of information published that assists employees who find themselves in a tough spot – a bullying boss.  The information generally outlines specific steps to take in reporting incidents to include Human Resources.  But what happens when the bullying boss is HR?

Before we look at the specifics of bullying, let’s revisit the 4 main types of workplace violence:


Workplace Violence Falls into Four Broad Categories

Type 1: Violent acts by criminals, who have no other connection with the workplace, but enter to commit robbery or another crime.

Type 1: These acts account for the vast majority of workplace homicides. In these incidents, the motive is usually theft, and in a great many cases, the criminal is carrying a gun or other weapon, increasing the likelihood that the victim will be killed or seriously wounded.


Preventive strategies for Type 1 include an emphasis on physical security measures, special employer policies, and employee training.


The response after a crime has occurred will involve the usual law enforcement procedures for investigating, finding and arresting the suspect, and collecting evidence for prosecution.

Type 2: Violence directed at employees by customers for whom the company provides services.

Type 2: In general, these verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults are committed by an assailant who either receives services from or is under the custodial supervision of the affected workplace or the victim. Assailants can be current or former customers/clients such as passengers, patients, students, criminal suspects or prisoners.


The customer/client may be provoked when s/he becomes frustrated by delays or by the denial of benefits or services.


Violent reactions by a customer may be unpredictable, triggered by an argument, or anger at the quality of service or denial of service, delays, or some other precipitating event.

Type 3: Violence committed by someone that has employment-related involvement with the company.

Type 3: These verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical as assaults are committed by an assailant who has some employment-related involvement with the workplace – a current or former employee, supervisor/manager, for example. In committing a threat or assault, the individual may be seeking revenge for what is perceived as unfair treatment.


This type of violence can usually be divided into two sub-types: violence between supervisors/managers and subordinates, and violence between co-workers or peers.


Violence in this category usually comes with a much greater chance that some warning signs will have reached the employer in the form of observable behavior. That knowledge, along with the appropriate prevention programs, can mitigate the potential for violence or prevent it altogether.

Type 4: Violence committed by someone with whom the victim has a personal relationship.

Type 4: These assaults involve verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults by an assailant who, in the workplace or on workplace property, confronts an individual with whom s/he has or had a personal relationship outside of work. Personal relations include a current or former spouse, lover, relative, friend or acquaintance.


The assailant’s actions are motivated by perceived difficulties in the relationship or by psycho-social factors that are specific to the assailant. This category includes victims of domestic violence, assaulted or threatened, while at work.

In the case of a bully boss, we are talking about Type 3: Violence committed by someone that has employment-related involvement with the company.

In an article by Dr. Gwendolyn Puryear Keita – Calling More Attention to Worker Stress for the American Psychological Association, Dr. Puryear Keita states “Research has shown that stress on the job brought about by organizational changes, including downsizing, the restructuring of jobs and job insecurity, and focused on the causes and consequences of workplace aggression, including bullying, incivility, violence and harassment, put workers at risk for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, alcohol and substance abuse, and other psychological and behavioral disorders.”

Facts drive workplace violence events and the related decisions. Human Resources’ mission is to protect and assist employees to do their jobs. When the threat lies within the Human Resource Department, where do you go?

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique. Firestorm has encountered several workplaces where employees felt threatened by the Human Resources Head. This widespread fear creates an unstable environment for the company and hinders daily operations.

What do you?

When faced with a problem where normal channels do not provide a direct solution, a different approach must be taken.

First, step back and identify what your concerns are.


Second, document the events with a time line. List the facts. You can add your opinions separately as how it made you feel. Are there others who have experienced similar problems? Will they come forward?


Third, decide on a next step. What are you looking for? What will help you?


Fourth, identify what the positive and negative impacts are of taking action or not taking action.


Fifth, make contact with someone to share your concerns. This contact is a function of company size and structure. Is the company a small family run business? Is it a large public company? Or somewhere in between?

Any contact outside of your direct supervisor can either result in helping the situation or alternatively, escalating the problem. Having a written statement and support materials will help keep the meeting focused and reduce emotions.

Communicate in a rational manner: Victims who express themselves in an organized, calm manner, and describe events in a rational, linear fashion are most likely to be taken seriously.

Be consistent in detail:  when documenting instances as they occur, one is less likely to forget important details.  Trying to add details of an event or events after an initial report is made may raise suspicions of embellishment.

Emphasize work contributions and history of accomplishment: knowing value to an employer, and adding in this detail in an objective, accomplishment-focused manner lends to credibility. Credible victims are calm, restrained, and sympathetic.

Next options are:

Contact the supervisor’s boss. This is a skip level meeting – you are skipping over a senior manager’s role to the next level of management.


Contact the General Counsel or any senior manager. Recognize that politics will always be a factor.


Contact your company EAP.

Going Outside

If these channels are not available or non productive, consider an interview with an attorney specializing in employment law to provide perspective and assistance.

This situation shows again that every crisis is a human crisis.

For more information on creating a sound, responsive Workplace Violence prevention program for your organization, visit the Firestorm Workplace Violence Assessment


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