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Observing bullying and harassment: an ethical dilemma

Sep 22, 2019

Bullying and harassment are thought of as an HR and management problem, but often presents very real ethical dilemmas for the people observing the behaviour. Matt Kavanagh outlines how observers and mediators can appropriately deal with the ethical burden of bullying and harassment.

According to the Professional Accountants in Ireland and Northern Ireland Ethics Research Report, 94% of professional accountants reported observing or encountering some level of unethical behaviour during their professional career. Bullying and harassment was reported to be the most commonly observed unethical conduct, with 72% of professional accountants reporting to having observed or encountered it during their professional career.

Bullying and harassment can come from a number of sources – a boss with poor people skills, a frustrated colleague under pressure, or even just a person with poor self-awareness as to their own behaviour.

Not only is the bully’s behaviour affecting the target but it also affects the people around them who are observing the bullying and harassment. It presents itself as an ethical dilemma when a person is faced with a difficult choice on what to do if they have observed such conduct. Should the individual intervene? Should the person report the matter to others in their organisation? Does the person ignore the behaviour by rationalising the conduct and suggesting that maybe it wasn’t ‘too bad’?

What you can do as an observer

There are, of course, a number of potential actions that could be taken to ease the ethical burden:

  • Check with the target to see how they feel about the encounter. If the target is upset by the other person’s conduct, they may wish to contact human resources to discuss things further, or to make an informal or formal complaint. You can support them in this decision.
  • If you know the person who appears to be bullying or harassing their colleague, it may be useful to speak with them informally and reflect back what you believe you observed. This can be a very difficult conversation, but it could be a good opportunity to stop the harassment by making them aware that their behaviour is being observed.
  • Consider discussing what you observed with a trusted colleague, friend or family member. This can help you to decide what you should do. If a direct approach to the bully is not an option, consider whether your organisation’s Dignity at Work Policy allows for, or obligates you to, report it as a witness.

Staying ethical while investigating

Where you have been asked to investigate or mediate a possible case of bullying and harassment, it is important to consider your own ethical stance. These obligations include:

  • Carrying out your work with an open mind and in an impartial manner;
  • Afford each party fair procedure;
  • Take time to understand fully what is being alleged;
  • Consider the degree of seriousness based on both the facts and the perspective of the target; and
  • Carefully fully consider the responses from the person who was alleged to have carried out the bullying.

Matt Kavanagh BL MBA M.Comm (Corporate Governance) is a governance, business and human resources consultant.

A webinar, Bullying and Harassment – Dealing with the Ethical Dilemma, will be hosted by Chartered Accountants Ireland on 16 October 2019.