[BLOG] Workplace Bullying & Harassment; an African Perspective on HR Risk Management
by Yewande Aturamu
Work has been recognized as an integral component of collective self-identity. It is argued that the work place should be psychologically and physically safe, devoid of any form of abuse or harassment. Workplace legislation in most advanced countries has progressed to provide this physical safety net. Some developing countries are now implementing legislation that provides protection to workers against psychological harassment, commonly known as workplace bullying. In countries where no specific Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) or harassment legislation exists, employees are increasingly left at the mercy of their aggressors rather than civil and criminal courts like their counterparts in the better developed part of the world. Quite often, most HR representatives in Africa fail to respond appropriately to allegations of workplace bullying and sexual harassment. The consequences of workplace bullying and harassment could result in increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, staff depression and a negative overall impact on bottom-line.
Bullying at work is defined as any act of harassment, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks. In order for the label ‘bullying’ to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process, it has to occur repeatedly and over a period of time (e.g., about six months). Bullying is an escalating process during the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. In this context, a conflict cannot be regarded as bullying if the incident is an isolated event or if two parties of approximately equal ‘strength’ are in conflict.
The African socio-cultural way of life has not really helped matters for the HR professionals. Employees bullied or sexually harassed are often too embarrassed to report for fear of retaliation and intimidation. Our research reveals some employees even enjoyed being harassed by their bosses.
Furthermore, we noted that HR professionals are often reluctant to accuse (usually) senior managers involved, as a result of the ‘sacred cow syndrome’ among top executives in Africa. In addition, there was no strong legislation in place to prosecute these culprits in many African countries.
Do you have a structured whistleblower hotline for reporting unethical and immoral behaviours in your organization? Is it managed by an objective and independent risk consulting firm? Do you have a bullying and harassment policy in your organization? How often do you measure its effectiveness and efficiency from a cost/benefit standpoint?
There are three common responses to allegation of workplace bullying and harassment in Africa:
- See No Evil: Many organizations have lukewarm attitudes toward bullying behaviours in the workplace, and typically fired anyone who complained of sexual harassment.
- Hear No Evil: Some organizations blamed the victim and defined the problem as a personality defect, for which the victim should be proud that a member of senior management harassed him/her sexually.
- Few multinationals and organizations adopt harassment policies that view bullying and sexual harassment behaviour as wrong, thus it has no backbone to enforce or take appropriate action to stop such tendencies due to African socio-cultural settings and lack of an independent firm to provide objective investigation and reporting to both victim and perpetrator, as well as lack of strong harassment legislation in the country to enforce the law.
It is therefore clear that managing allegations of workplace bullying and sexual harassment is a difficult and complex task for HR in Africa. The skills below will aid in your decision-making and result in positive outcomes for the victim, perpetrator and organization in similar situations:
What’s next? Lead the Way in your Organization:
- Raise awareness of the issue. Making a business case for the management of bullying and harassment is most effective.
- Audit bullying behaviours in your organization through an anonymous survey and estimate the current indirect costs/impact.
- Develop a policy on workplace bullying and harassment.
- Provide training to every level, from the top down, and have everyone commit to taking the training.
- Provide a range of resolution options and use wisely:
- Attempt a reconciliation process between the individuals involved (if the problem is identified early and behaviours have not caused significant psychological damage).
- Provide corrective coaching to the perpetrator and monitor performance improvements. Provide counseling to the target.
- Create effective and efficient reporting structure.
- Have punitive measures toward the perpetrator up to and including termination included in your organization policy.
- Select for integrity. There is a modest correlation between tests of integrity and counter-productive workplace behaviours.
- Provide leadership coaching. Leaders’ own attitudes toward others and their understanding of the concept of bullying and harassment should be an essential part of a coaching process.
In order to have an effective and efficient HR risk management and a great workplace environment free of bullying and harassment, government in most African countries must step up by passing into law bullying and harassment as illegal, just like in the case of U.S.A and Canada. There is a strong correlation between happy employees and increased productivity. This change would promote free and fair enterprise driven by a need to increase bottom-line for all stakeholders. It is the responsibility of all employers to protect their employees from this social malady called bullying and harassment. It is workers’ right to feel safe and be protected by the organization through strong harassment policy, as well as a well-equipped and informed HR department.
Yewande Aturamu, PDG, RPR, CHRP
Senior Partner, Resource Result Ltd. Canada
V-mail: (+1403) 680-4590