Read our State of Employment Law Research Report to get compliance tips from your HR peers.


How to Investigate Allegations of Bullying With an Open Mind

How to Investigate Allegations of Bullying With an Open Mind

Bullies, super-sensitives and dragon-slayers can keep investigators on their toes.

Whenever you have two diametrically opposed groups there is bound to be misunderstanding and conflict. This is true in the political and ideological realm (think Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, dictatorship and democracy) and I believe it is true in the psychological and emotional realm as well (think emotional and logical, risk-seeking and risk-adverse).

In politics we have some safeguards to keep the disagreements from going completely off the deep end (at least we do in democracies; not so much in other political systems, to be sure). Instead of taking up arms or running over our opponents with tanks in the streets, we talk one another to death in Parliament or Congress and the Senate.

Bullies vs Supersensitives

Those of us who exist within a democratic framework like to believe that we live in countries where law and order, derived primarily from a logical, rational approach to problem solving, rules. Thus, when we are faced with one of two emotional extremes that exist, we are unsure how to proceed.

Much has been written in the last couple of years about the bullies, and it is true that they can take a huge toll on all of us – targets and witnesses alike. But that is only one end of the continuum. Much less has been said about the “supersensitives” who occupy the other end of the continuum.

Highly Sensitive People

Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person provides a self-test and Thomas Leonard talks about people he calls “HSP – highly sensitive people”, and also provides a self-assessment inventory.

Basically both are identifying those people Leonard characterizes in the following:

HSPs can have extra-sensitive reactions to various stimuli including light, noise, smells, temperature, touch and pain. They may be more prone to allergies and food sensitivities. Emotionally, they may be more sensitive to the feelings of others around them, and deeply affected by the emotional atmosphere of their surroundings.

They are often unable to be "tough" in the workplace without damaging themselves. They don't like to be forced to multitask, and they can hate being watched closely when they work. They prefer not to be "put on the spot" for answers, and need time to think before replying in stressful situations such as interviews. However they are good communicators when they are in their element or enjoying their work.

HSPs can "soak up" other people's feelings, and if they are disliked by colleagues (or family) they can be acutely sensitive to the negative feelings aimed at them. This can lead to emotional and physical distress. Travel and commuting can be extra stressful. So can overcrowding and "neighbours from hell.

Beware the Dragon-Slayer

While there are undoubtedly real bullies in a number of workplaces, how many people are identified as a bully by a person who is a super-sensitive? The give and take that most of us negotiate on a daily basis can quickly escalate, especially when the weight of popular opinion swings in favour of presumed targets, to allegations of bullying, followed by corrective action instituted by HR or corporate lawyers.

Victims have a particular appeal to those exhibiting “St. George and the Dragon” syndrome – an approach where people feel worthwhile when they locate local dragons that need to be slain. Organizations need to be cognizant that among their employees may be people at both ends of the spectrum, and investigate allegations of bullying seriously and thoroughly.