Bullying And Harassment – Informal Support From Contact Persons

Bullying and harassment in the workplace continue to be one of the most challenging forms of interpersonal difficulties that arise in the workplace. As part of an organisation’s bullying prevention policy, the Health and Safety Authority Code of Practice (2007) in Ireland recommends that employers should name a ‘Contact Person’, whose role is to ‘listen and advise about complaints of bullying at work and explain the procedures in place to resolve it’ (Section 5.3).

How might an organisation go about incorporating this recommendation in their anti-bullying and harassment policy and what benefits might it have?

The Contact Person role is usually defined as providing emotional support and information in a confidential, non-judgmental and off-the-record to any member of staff who ‘believes that he or she is being treated in a bullying manner’. It can also be a support to someone who has been subject to a complaint of bullying or harassment.

Key tasks of the role usually include:

  • Active listening and providing supportive empathy:
    This is one of the key tasks of the role. Allowing the person to speak about their experiences and feel heard can be therapeutic in itself and gives them a feeling of being accepted and not judged. Speaking about their experience also helps a person to clarify and organize their thoughts. It is an essential pre-cursor to looking at options and possible solutions and making decisions for action.
  • Explore options and consequences of these:
    The Contact Person uses open questions to help the person think through their options and what actions they might take. They will outline and explain the procedures available to them in the Bullying Prevention and Harassment/Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedures and help them evaluate the implications of any choices they might make.
  • Empower/coach towards next step:
    This is where the Contact Person uses basic coaching questions to help the employee take the next step. It also involves checking back with them to ensure that they are on track with whatever actions they planned to take. Recruitment of Contact Persons is usually by approaching a small cadre of people who have already demonstrated skills or interest in support roles e.g. trades union officials, health and safety officials, persons with ‘good’ people skills, counsellors, human resources personnel. Some organisations ‘advertise’ the role to all employees and use an interview process to then select the most suitable for the role. A short one or two day training is usually provided.

Meetings between the Contact Person and the person seeking support should normally take place during normal working hours and in a suitable location where privacy can be assured. The Contact Person will not retain any notes or records of these discussions. No more than 3-4 sessions with any one individual should ever be needed. More than this could mean the Contact Person is being drawn into a counselling relationship.

Benefits:

  • It gives people access to a confidential compassionate, objective and supportive listener whom they can talk through their difficulties and get objective information without having to raise the matter at a more official level such as speaking to a manager or HR
  • Getting support with a complaint or conflict situation at an early stage increases the chances of the matter getting resolved rather than ending up in an adversarial and protracted investigation process
  • It is a clear demonstration of an organisation’s commitment to a preventing and pro-actively addressing workplace bullying.

Challenges

  • The Contact Persons need to be trained and facilitated to time away from their normal work tasks in order to provide support to those seeking their help
  • When introducing the Contact Person option, there needs to be an awareness-raising programme to make staff aware of the option of accessing a Contact Person as well the limits of their role
  • The limitations of the role could be a drawback. The Contact Person role cited in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 Code of Practice 2002 also involved approaching the person complained against and seeking to resolve the issue in an informal low-key manner. In Northern Ireland, a similar role Harassment Advisor still carries out this task. Being able to implement a mini-mediation intervention informally and confidentially at an early stage can nip situations in the bud and avoid greater levels of stress and upset for all involved.

Contact us for more information or check out our training courses for Contact Persons – download Course Programme