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Addressing workplace bullying: Building systems for formal intervention

AMBS has developed a methodology to resolve workplace bullying allegations fairly and rigorously.

“The faktaundersøkelse method has had a significant impact on the HR capabilities of the Norwegian Armed Forces. Following the #metoo campaign and associated whistle-blowing cases, there has been an explosion of work for our organization in handling cases of bullying and harassment. Without Hoel and colleagues’ methods and training, we would not have developed such clear procedures for dealing with these complaints. Adopting these highly trusted and effective procedures has significantly increased our capacity and competence to undertake this increasingly important work.”

(Commander of the Norwegian Armed Forces Human Resources Management Services)

Impact highlights

In 2001 the first nationwide survey of workplace bullying in Great Britain identified that one in ten respondents reported having been bullied within the previous six months, and more than one in four had been bullied in the past five years.

Having documented the prevalence of bullying at work, Professor Helge Hoel and colleagues began to examine the contextual factors associated with bullying and different approaches to addressing the problem, including the role of industrial relations, the role of leadership and the role of policies and regulations.

Whereas previous research has predominantly examined the experience of the complainant or the organisational context for bullying, this research was the first to systematically examine how serious cases of bullying could be better managed through more effective investigation and complaints procedures.

Scandinavian experience

Professor Hoel undertook international comparisons of differing national approaches to the management of bullying at work. Through detailed case analyses of Scandinavian practices, he identified shortcomings in the approaches prevailing in this region and documented how the Swedish approach had few formal methods to respond to complaints, including a lack of an investigatory system and a strong reluctance to assigning blame, guilt and responsibility.

Similarly, the Norwegian approach to addressing workplace bullying was found to be very informal with management processes rarely guided by formal policies or written guidelines, resulting in particularly negative consequences for targets of bullying and harassment.

Developing a new methodology

Hoel’s research pointed to significant differences between the Scandinavian approach and the investigation practices and training approaches offered by British employers.

Accordingly, he worked with the Norwegian Labour Inspectorate to develop a methodology, Faktaundersøkelse (‘Investigation of Facts’), for use in difficult bullying cases in the workplace. This new methodology located bullying complaints within the framework of the employer’s duty of care and the managerial prerogative, offering a structured and fair response to complaints where no formal tradition existed.

The results of this research were reported in a book ‘Faktaundersøkelse’ which provides the case for, and gives advice, on how to deal with inter-personal problems and complaints of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Workplace training

Since 2014 Hoel has trained more than 1,000 employees from many Scandinavian organisations using the faktaundersøkelse method. These organisations include the Norwegian Armed Forces, Kvaerner, Statoil Equinor, Veidekke and 54 local and regional authorities in Norway and Sweden. Course attendees are mostly managers and advisors from an organisation’s HR function or management consultants and independent occupational health services.

Professionals who have been trained in the method have been able to embed what they have learned into their own organisations, increasing competence for investigating claims of bullying.

Evidence from multiple organisations shows that HR departments are better equipped to deal with bullying allegations after adopting Hoel’s investigation method.

Organisational impact

Evaluation of Hoel’s training programme has shown specific significant organisational impacts in four areas:

  • enhanced competency within workplaces to deal with bullying and harassment allegations
  • improvement in the rigour of anti-bullying investigations, resulting in more equitable outcomes
  • improvement in employee and workplace wellbeing
  • improvement in the development of workplace anti-bullying policies leading to cultural change.

Participants in the courses say one of the most significant outcomes of their training has been an improvement in the rigour and stringency of internal anti-bullying investigations.

Many participants reported that prior to Hoel’s training course, there was an uneven application of process as anti-bullying investigations were mostly carried out at local levels and with varying levels of formality by different managers. This led to arbitrary and often unsatisfactory outcomes for both complainants and defendants.

Hoel went on to devise a further two-day course on anti-bullying policy development and implementation. A number of large companies in Scandinavia, that were previously lacking official anti-bullying policies, have attested to organisation-wide cultural changes that have occurred since the development of new anti-bullying policies stemming from this course.

Impact on court cases

Although most faktaundersøkelse investigations are resolved within workplaces, within the last few years an increasing number of court decisions in employment-related cases by Norwegian magistrates courts (tingrett) and appeals courts at county level (lagmannsrett) have referenced the methodology.

Such acknowledgement of the process in court documents confirms that faktaundersøkelse has not only become a common pathway to conflict resolution within Norwegian workplaces, but also a recognised process within the Norwegian legal system in cases where the conflict is escalated to courts.

The faktaundersokelse procedure has had a significant impact on legal debate as it is now recognised as playing an important role in resolving conflict within Norwegian workplaces.