Thursday, 25 July 2013

Implementation is the issue when standing up to bullying

Workplace bullying has been estimated to cost the UK £13.75 billion annually. As a consequence, more and more organisations are putting into place anti-bullying policies to protect their employees and themselves. However, recent research explores potential gaps between policy and implementation in organisations, using a case study that digs beneath the official position.

Chris Woodrow and David Guest investigated a London-based hospital, high performing with strong clinical results. Analysis of the formal policies on bullying revealed them to be comparable to a benchmark that Woodrow and Guest built from a literature review of best practice policy. The organisation endorsed a zero-tolerance to bullying, provided informal routes for managers to deal with complaints together with a formal resolution system, and additional support for victims such as counselling and a bullying helpline. The hospital had even run an anti-bullying initiative to reinvigorate action on the issue a few years before the study commenced. Yet reported rates of bullying were at or above the national average. Between 2005 and 2008 they rose by 20%, a steeper climb than the national average; the invigorating initiative took place in midst of this in 2006.

Woodrow and Guest used data from staff attitude surveys taken in 2006 and 2007, each with around 400 participants. The bullying rates documented in this varied widely by hospital division, with 11% of the staff in one division reporting bullying in 2007, versus 35% at the other extreme. This range showed no obvious relation to the type of work involved, and didn't reflect the quality of bullying policies, as every division fell under those of the hospital. This suggested a factor may be local implementation, and a regression analysis added substance to this: divisions with less bullying reported that their managers offered more support and that they perceived more  effective action from the organisation.

The researchers were interested in going beyond the quantitative data to find out what this looks like in the organisation, so they interviewed twelve individuals with experience of bullying, including managers who were requested to take action in bullying cases. These accounts shed light on how implementation can stall or fail. Individuals with complaints described their desire to take a formal route meeting with discouragement from managers concerned the situation might reflect badly on them. Managers reported being leant on to go-slow the process: one manager commenting 'Do my senior managers think that I’m doing a bad job because I’m sticking to policy?' Additionally, failures could also be the result of poor quality implementation, such as a manager poorly equipped to give evidence in an investigation leading to delays and preventing timely resolution.

This study is part of broader recent research suggesting that HR implementation is currently of more concern than the presence and content of policies. Woodrow and Guest's regression suggests that manager and organisational commitments against bullying have an influence - via their effects on bullying levels - upon employee stress levels, as well as their intention to leave (2006 regression) and job satisfaction (2007). These are crucial organisational outcomes. The authors suggest that organisations ensure that senior management match their behaviour to the words of the policies they endorse, and that line management provides appropriate support, including via the presence of HR individuals such as business partners.

ResearchBlogging.orgChris Woodrow, & David E. Guest (2013). When good HR gets bad results: exploring the challenge of HR implementation in the case of workplace bullying Human Resource Management Journal DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12021

Further reading:
Beswick, J., Gore, J. and Palferman, D. (2006). Bullying at Work: A Review of the Literature, Buxton: Health and Safety Laboratory.


  1. Interesting, but isn't implementation ALWAYS the issue about policies?? A policy becomes a living thing only if there is leadership by example.
    Leading a safety improvement programme in the food industry, many participants claimed succes because of visibility of management, including myself highest in hierarchy within the organisation at the time reguyrlay on the shop floor living the example. Walk the talk, breathe the policy....

  2. Reinier, essentially I think that's right. This study is useful by drawing our attention to the kinds of failures of policy implementation that can occur with regard to bullying, the types of blockers and situations that can arise in the space between good policy and good implementation.

    Thanks for reading!

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