My HR Department Bullies Employees

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
Let me start by saying that my workplace is riddled with nepotism, bullying, paranoia, incompetence, corruption and cronyism - you get the picture. And, sorry to say, but our HR Department is the most severely afflicted. I work for the government and I believe that because sacking government workers is harder than sacking private sector employees, bullying can easily become a tool, for getting people to leave "voluntarily".
HR came up with a hit-list/blacklist of a couple of dozen people who were "problem cases," mainly because they had stood up to bullying senior managers or questioned their incompetence/abuse of taxpayer funds. My first question to you is whether such a list is normal practice in HR departments - it reminds me of Joe McCarthy.
The strategy now is to corner each person on the list (of whom I am one) by digging up some past, possibly quite minor misdeed and having the person "investigated" by an "independent" authority.
My alleged transgression is to have written "disrespectfully" about someone in an email. They are certainly using/abusing this as a means of cowing me, humiliating me and pushng me to leave, which of course I would love to do, if only there were more jobs around.
I have never bene in such a situation - nor in such a thoroughly rotten workplace. Any advice you can provide would be much appreciated.
I haven't ever worked for the government, but from what I've read, they do practice less of an employment-at-will philosophy so it is more difficult to terminate people. (Plus, many government employees are union members which takes away the at-will status explicitly.)

But, first, a defense of my beloved profession. Most HR departments do not keep hit-lists or blacklists of employees that they want to torture. Oh, we want to torture employees all right (note the Evil in Evil HR Lady), but we don't keep actual lists. Heavens no. That would provide proof of our inherent evilness, and we don't want that, do we?

All right, I'm just joking. No, this is not usual behavior and I wouldn't work for any organization that encouraged use of bullying techniques for handling employee problems. There are people that believe that making someone miserable so they'll quit is better than firing. I fully disagree.

You are correct to be looking for a new place to work, but while you are conducting that search, you need to deal with the situation at hand.

Some research shows that the reason teachers are incapable of stopping schoolyard bullying is because the bullies do their bullying when the teachers aren't watching. Teachers cannot stop what they don't know about, and unfortunately, students who tattle may not be believed because the teacher has no other proof. And heaven knows, children may be cute and charming, but they are also capable of lying like rugs.

The workplace seems to be similar to the school yard, except the cafeteria is more expensive. If a co-worker or direct supervisor is bullying you, bringing it to the attention of an authority figure (the boss or the boss's boss) can help stop the bullying. But, like the school aged bully, office bullies are good at sucking up to the boss and keeping their bad behavior under the radar. So, this frequently this doesn't work.

In your situation, because the bullying is being done by HR and--it seems--this is the accepted method of employee discipline, complaining about it will not only not work, but will also give additional evidence of your "disrespect" problem. Instead, here's my plan:

Apologize for any disrespect. Ask the HR bully to accompany you to the office of the person who was "disrespected" and apologize to that person's face. "I'm so sorry. In no way did I mean to disrespect you. Please forgive me."

If you've done this, what can they do? If they use bullying as a means to getting people to resign, then the "disrespect" is not enough evidence to terminate you in the first place. So, if you "confess" and apologize, what can they do about it?

If the "offended" party is a rational person, she'll say, "Oh, no problem. Thanks." If she's behind the bullying, this may not be the best route, of course. But again, now you've apologized and what more can be done?

Instead of spending time fighting against the insanity, just join in and admit your guilt and ask for a business writing class or something, so you "don't make the same mistake again."

The logic behind this approach is that bullies need something to push against. They expect you to argue back. This gives them the satisfaction of being able to justify their behavior because you are obviously "bad." But, by saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Let me apologize," you've moved that wall that they are pushing against and they fall onto their faces.

And that, even if it doesn't work, will result in the amusing situation of them not being able to figure out how to react to your unexpected result.

Please keep up the job search because you can't hold off these people forever, but you can make it a little less unpleasant for the duration of your stay.
Illustration by Chesi - Fotos CC, Flickr cc 2.0
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    Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate Human Resources. She's hired, fired, and analyzed the numbers for several major companies. She founded the Carnival of HR, a bi-weekly gathering of HR blogs, and her writings have been used in HR certification and management training courses across the country.

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