How to Prevent Workplace Bullying

How to Prevent Workplace Bullying

What’s the difference between bullying and harassment, and when do they become the same thing? What are the stages of bullying and how can you catch the signs early before it escalates into a real issue that emotionally impacts people, both those involved and those observing? Catherine Mattice, author of Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, founder of Civility Partners, international speaker, HR consultant and expert in workplace bullying joins Brandon Laws to discuss the often overlooked issue of workplace bullying and the root cause of the problem of bullying.

MP3 File | Run time: 29:59


Brandon: Hello and welcome back for another episode of the Human Resources for Small Business Podcast, I’m Brandon Laws and I’m your host. Today’s conversation is with Catherine Mattice, the author of Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work. She’s also the founder of Civility Partners.

She’s an international speaker, an award-winning author, an HR consultant and an expert in workplace bullying. Today’s conversation is going to be all about her book Back Off! and I think you’re really going to learn a lot about bullying, what to look for, and really what we can do as managers, leaders, and HR professionals to end bullying.

Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. A lot of you have reached out and just said what you like about the podcast, what you want to learn, and I definitely encourage you to keep doing that.

Without further ado, I’m going to get on with the episode, enjoy the conversation today.

Brandon: Hey Catherine, it’s good to have you on the podcast! Welcome.

Catherine: Thanks so much for having me!

Brandon: Today we’re going to talk about your book Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work. I wanted to first ask you, for those that may be listening to this podcast or maybe they’ve heard about bullying quite a bit especially in the media, what if they’re skeptical of bullying and that it actually takes place in the workplace? What are the common myths that kind of hang out there as it relates to bullying?

Catherine: Well, the biggest myth in my mind is that bullying and harassment are not compared often enough or people think bullying is just conflict or it’s just a little bit of instability.

Really, bullying and harassment are exactly the same behaviors. Bullying is as awful as harassment. It’s just that the law puts a divide and says, well, if the bullying is aimed at a protected class, then it’s illegal. So that’s one myth, that bullying is not that bad. But it is harassment. It’s just legal harassment.

Another common myth is whose fault it is. Often online, for example, the bully is made out to be this villain and it’s the bully’s fault and they’re awful or the other way is you may see people blaming the target. Well, what’s wrong with them if they’re being bullied? Maybe they’re not performing.

The bully and the target are operating in contexts set up by the organization. So it’s not the bully’s fault. It’s not the target’s fault. It’s the organization’s fault.

Brandon: How big of a problem is bullying actually? You mentioned that harassment is really kind of the legal term. But with bullying, I mean if this is taking place, is it in every work place?

Catherine: Well, I mean where there are people, there’s room for drama, right? So lots of research studies have found that about 35% of the workforce feels bullied at some point in their life. I think that’s pretty significant, and, of course it causes people who are the recipients of that behavior to experience a lot of fear and unhappiness. So it is a real problem that needs to be addressed, absolutely.

Brandon: I don’t think I’ve ever seen bullying happen around me, but that’s not to say it hasn’t. What would you tell somebody like myself who doesn’t even really know what to look for in terms of the symptoms of bullying?

Catherine: You know, it’s going to be around the dynamics of what you’re seeing or not seeing I guess. So things like maybe people avoiding each other or not working together, a lack of teamwork. A lot of times actually people who feel bullied are having a hard time producing because they’re operating in this real heightened state of fear. So if you see that someone isn’t producing, they’re not meeting their deadlines, of course there are a lot of reasons that could happen, but bullying certainly could be one of them.

When there’s bullying happening, people get into cliques because they really start to support each other. So you could see where maybe targets or people who are afraid of the bullying band together. Also a lot of whispering and gossiping. So after a staff meeting, if there was some bad behaviors, people will sort of band together to gossip about that. Obviously the biggest sign that there’s bullying is, is actual bullying behavior. So you could see things like yelling or you’re seeing a nasty email.

So you can see bullying behaviors, but then there’s all this under the radar behavior and chatter about it that you would sense if you’re paying attention.

Brandon: What are some of the costs or the effects of bullying if we let it go on way too long?

Catherine: Lots and lots and lots! The academic research on workplace bullying really focuses on the damage that targets experience, so I’ll start there.

People who feel bullied experience fear, anxiety, depression. I’ve actually had stories where HR professionals called me because there was a suicide even on the site because of bullying and the note was sort of all about that. And actually PTSD has been correlated to workplace bullying and that’s a hot topic right now in the academic research. And of course stress. Stress translates to physical problems, that’s not a secret, so if someone is stressed out, they’re not sleeping, they’re not eating, they’re not taking care of themselves, heart disease and all that stuff.

So for the target there are a lot of psychological and physical damages. For the organization, of course, all of that translates into wasted time, turnover, presenteeism, absenteeism, people not communicating very well, poor decisions, lack of innovation.

People have to thrive. If you want your business to thrive, your people have to thrive, and if there’s bullying, they’re not thriving. They’re spending a lot of time living in this world of fear and so it’s really costly for the organization.

Brandon: When you wrote your book, did you feel like at the time that maybe enough people weren’t really paying attention to this subject or that it was needed? Because in your book, you call it a “kick-ass guide,” it literally is a guide. This book has assessments and lists and it’s the how-to of dealing with bullying. Did you feel at the time that this just isn’t covered enough and that people needed this?

Catherine: Absolutely. I am a very tangible person, I’m very to-do-list-oriented, I don’t like business books that tell me they’re Siri and give me a model that I don’t really know what to do with when I’m done. I saw a lot of that online and in the other books about workplace bullying and so I really wanted to give actual, tangible takeaways that someone who read my book could walk away with a nice long list of things that they could do. So yeah, I absolutely was trying to fill a hole that I saw.

Brandon: It’s interesting because the other day when I finished your book, I’m an avid Goodreads user, the social app for reading books and seeing what you want to read and all that. One of the people in my network, they were like, Hey, this is a great book. If you like this one, go to some blog post about bullying. You can tell that it’s on people’s minds, either they’ve been affected by it or just they’re concerned about it as an HR manager or manager of people. They see it around them, so they’re concerned.

I wanted to give them some technical things around bullying. When it relates to bullying, is it usually a single incident? Is that ongoing? Does it perpetuate and get to different stages? What usually transpires with bullying?

Catherine: What happens is there’s some sort of initial bullying incident. Bullies usually don’t come in full force and effect right away, they work up to it. So it does start off as an act of instability, maybe an eye roll or a bit of a nasty email or something.

Then for whatever reason the target doesn’t stand up against that. Maybe they just brush it off as a one-time thing, maybe they’re afraid of it, maybe they didn’t notice it or whatever. Whatever reason in that initial incident, whatever it was, the target doesn’t do anything about it.

So then the bullying happens a little more frequent or the aggression gets a little more frequent, a little more aggressive over time. I like to say it sort of unfolds like a crescendo where there’s this initial incident and then this power imbalance grows and grows and grows. Often unfortunately what happens is people don’t even really recognize that they’re being bullied until it has been going on for a while. Then the light bulb comes on and it’s like man, this person makes my life miserable. I’m bullied.

But that happens because it’s confusing. You feel like you’re an adult. You’re in the working world, there’s no law against it, there isn’t a lot of vernacular around it, so it’s really confusing for someone to be bullied. It takes a while for them to sort of realize, gosh, this is bullying and I’m not going to be able to get out of it. What do I do now?

Brandon: If somebody is being bullied, but they don’t really notice it until it’s too far gone, that begs the question: why do people start bullying in the first place? I mean, do they even know it’s happening? I guess you mentioned a little bit ago that it’s oftentimes an imbalance of power. Is that the reason why it usually starts? They see that they have a leg up on somebody who’s more passive? Or what is it?

Catherine: They sense they have a leg up. And that’s actually going back to the question about myths. One of the things you see online is that bullies are essentially psychopaths and they’re these evil people and they’re out to kill people at work or go after people. That’s not what’s happening. People who bully sense the power they’re getting out of it, but it’s not a conscious I’m going to wake up in the morning and I’m so excited because I’m going to make Susan’s life hell today. It’s sort of a subconscious seeking of power. They sense they’re getting power out of it.

Also, people who bully really desire to be perceived as uber competent and that desire to be competent drives their behavior because that’s just the way they’re communicating and behaving in an effort to be seen as competent without realizing that it’s actually hindering this perception they’re really trying to build and also they feel threatened a lot.

So perhaps the person they’re bullying threatens this desire to be seen as competent. To give you an example, I’m coaching someone right now who has been identified as too abrasive. And he’s a visionary, he makes millions of dollars for his company, he creates these software program ideas and then he puts a team together and they implement it. That’s how he’s seen as competent. My products work. I make millions of dollars.

So here you get some peon who messes up the vision, makes the mistake. All of a sudden this vision he’s trying to implement is disrupted and that’s affecting his ability to be seen as competent. So he may bully that person because of that, does that make sense?

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. Does he recognize he’s even doing it, though? I mean obviously he was seeking your help eventually. But – at first, did he really realize it?

Catherine: No, no. And the coaching process is a process. It takes time for someone who bullies to really recognize that although you’re attempting to be seen as competent, you’re not. I’m there to help you achieve this goal that you have, but in order to do that, we’ve got to adjust your communication.

Of course they deny it a lot at first. You know, I didn’t mean it that way or I don’t understand what you mean. Yeah, I yelled. But it wasn’t that bad. They kind of justify their behavior, so it takes me a little time to sort of crack the egg and help them start to view things differently. So when I coach people, my job is to help them understand that they’re creating anxiety and help them come up with plans to eliminate or alleviate that anxiety. That’s ultimately what it’s focused on.

Brandon: I hate to overgeneralize, but is there a specific type of person that is more likely to bully? I mean you mentioned with the power struggle, maybe it’s a supervisor over an employee. What are some typical scenarios where one person is more likely to be a bully than the other?

Catherine: Often it is a superior bullying a subordinate of some kind. In fact lots of academic research has come to this particular number of 70%. 70% of the time it’s a superior bullying down, so 30% of the time it’s either peer to peer or somebody bullying up.

Usually bullies are high performers. They’re lacking communication skills and they’re lacking social and emotional intelligence. So they’re typically fully unaware that they create this kind of reaction. I hate all this stuff I see online about how bullies have emotional problems or they’re psychopaths or this or that. Because yeah, sometimes probably, but we can’t make those sorts of generalizations and it bothers me.

Brandon: It’s not really that fair. Yeah.

In your book, you mentioned that in terms of your research and your work, you break up behaviors of bullies into kind of three different categories – communication, humiliation, manipulation. What are a couple of the behaviors of the bullies in each of those categories, just to give listeners a sense for what they can watch for?

Catherine: So as you said, the first bucket is communication. That would be things like sending rude emails, nasty emails, insulting people, getting in someone’s personal space, harsh, aggressive body language, eyes bulging. You know, communication that we can see that we could all say that was pretty aggressive. We don’t like that. That’s the first bucket.

In fact, this guy that I was just speaking of, one of the things he does is stand up in meetings and kind of lean over the table. People described that his body language is very stiff, his eyes are kind of bulging out. That’s one example.

The next bucket of behaviors is humiliation, so pointing out mistakes in public, pointing out mistakes to leaders, socially isolating people, spreading rumors about them. I worked with a company where they had hazing, that was a problem. So what they would do is hide other people’s tools. So as a group of kind of senior employees they would hide tools from people and then they couldn’t do their work. It’s one thing if it’s five minutes Ha-ha! That was funny. Here’s your tool back. But they would hide things for days and so these people were stressing out because they can’t do their work.

Then the last bucket is manipulation. This is the most under the radar but also it’s the best choice if you’re going to be a bully because you can justify your behavior. It’s passive-aggressive, right? So withholding information people need, if there are five steps and I only give you three steps, so you’re sort of set up to fail, giving people so much work that they can’t do it in a reasonable time, in fact another situation I was involved in, this poor woman, everyone in her office had 30 case files and she had 60 case files. So obviously she’s going to fail, there’s a reason everybody else only has 30 at a time. She had so much work that it was impossible for her to be successful. You know, taking credit or sort of manipulating people’s work. So those are the three buckets.

Brandon: You mentioned later on in your book that there are stages to bullying and you talked about earlier how an incident would happen, then it could progress. So I imagine these stages are sort of an upper progression of bullying. I’m curious because we just talked about those buckets – communication, humiliation, manipulation. Do these stages tie to those buckets where if it’s passive-aggressive – like over time, in these stages, as there’s ever progression in terms of the bullying, does the manipulation get worse and worse? What have you seen?

Catherine: That’s an interesting question. What I’ve seen usually is it progresses from manipulation to aggressive communication. So a lot of times that’s the reason I’m called is the aggression got out of hand where now it was visual.

You’ve got my wheels turning, I hadn’t really thought about that before! So thanks for that!

Brandon: My brain went there! I found it interesting.

Catherine: Yeah! So people start off manipulating and then it turns into communication that people can see and then HR recognizes, that’s not ok, we need to solve this.

Brandon: For the listeners who haven’t read the book, what are those stages that you outline in the book?

Catherine: I talk about instability as the first bucket. I talk about two forms of bullying: one is predatory and one is emotional. As I mentioned, most bullying is not predatory. These aren’t psychopaths. It feels that way but that’s not usually what’s happening. Emotional bullying is more about this reaction to someone threatening your competence, that’s the more common type of bullying. Then it progresses into violence.

Brandon: Geez, you would hate for it to ever go that route. But yeah, I imagine it could in the end.

Catherine: You know, I recently did a webinar with a woman who specializes in workplace violence. Sue Hoffman is her name and we got to talking about my work and her work over lunch one day and I realized I had never thought until then that bullying is actually workplace violence because according to Sue Hoffman, the only thing that has to happen in order for it to be violence is the other person has to be afraid. People who are targeted experience fear and so it is a form of workplace violence which is great news because that means that employers are required to solve bullying because employers are required to have a safe work environment.

Brandon: Do you find that with bullying it’s always a one-on-one thing or can it be group versus one individual? How does it usually play out?

Catherine: Usually there’s one person who’s the bully and they’re going after a group of people.

Brandon: A group of people. Interesting.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah. But I’ve also seen it where it was one person who sort of picked off people one by one. She went after one person and that person quit because they weren’t getting help from HR. Then the bully went after another person, and that person quit. I ended up having lunch with the last three people standing. They had watched this happen over time and of course they knew they were next. So I’ve seen it unfold that way as well.

The word we use when it’s a group of people bullying one person is “mobbing”. That’s a little bit different of a phenomenon. But it’s most often one person going after a group of people.

Brandon: Let’s say somebody is listening right now and they’re thinking, Oh my gosh. I’ve been a target of bullying. I guess I didn’t realize it. Why me? What do you say to them when they’re asking that question, Why me?

Catherine: Well, first off, I would say they’re bullying you because you’re a threat and that’s a compliment to you.

Brandon: Way to spin it into a positive! I like that.

Catherine: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a compliment to you that they’re so focused on you that they’re concerned about you and what you’re up to. So that’s good.

However, in terms of advice, what I would say is you’re being bullied because you’re not speaking up for yourself. So you’ve got to start figuring out ways to stand up for yourself. I know that’s a tall order, I just said people who are bullied experience fear and depression and all of these very awful, psychological things, but you have to start speaking up for yourself. We all like the path of least resistance, including bullies. If you start standing up for yourself, it will stop. It will take time, but it will stop.

Brandon: That’s a good segue because I wanted to ask you if it’s common for people who are being bullied and are aware of it to enlist the help of others, because I imagine when it gets to the stage of depression or you’re even to the point where you may be suicidal, where you’re probably bottling up and not enlisting the help of other people around you, whether it’s coworkers, family members, whatever, to solve this. What do you find? Do you find that most people, they just don’t even get help?

Catherine: I have a couple of answers. Often at work, the target, as we call them, will have one person at least that they talk to. We call that person a counselor. I got interested in workplace bullying because I experienced it myself way back when. I did have one counselor, she was another manager at my level and I spent a lot of time at her office. Every time I had an interaction, I would go down there and I would vent. That was one way for me to enlist help.

Of course counselors aren’t really necessarily going to speak up on behalf of the target, so they’re not usually going to volunteer to go to HR and help you file a complaint because they don’t want to be bullied and they’re afraid as well.

But part of the answer is also that, certainly, targets go home and tell their family members about it, which is part of what adds to the trauma that targets feel because they go home and tell their family, I’m bullied, and most people don’t really understand what that even means, unless you’ve been through it. That adds to the isolation because they go home, they vent, they probably talk about it a lot. It creates a wedge between them and their family members, the family members don’t understand them. So now you have this whole family dynamic at home that’s happening because of the bullying, which adds to it. It fuels the problem. So it makes me sad that we’re having to even have this conversation, that this even happens.

Brandon: Yeah. So maybe you touched on this a little bit, but I’m really curious. You wrote this book obviously out of a need. But why did you write this book? I mean did you have personal experiences? What led to this?

Catherine: So I was a Director of Human Resources for a non-profit and I found myself working with a bully and I personally felt bullied. Also as a Director of HR I dealt with the organizational problems. Lots of turnover. I was the counselor for many other people who felt bullied. They would come to me and vent. My hands were tied, I spoke to the president of the company a lot about it and he just would say that’s just how it is. Don’t worry about it. Be a bigger person. I don’t know why it bothers you. Just always discounting what I was saying and of course that I was speaking on behalf of other people too.

I actually became pretty depressed myself as a result of it and I was exhausted, that’s the best word. I was tired of being bullied and tired of being the go-to person and the buffer. Meanwhile, while all that was going on, I started getting my master’s degree despite what I was going through at work. I actually had a class called The Dark Side of Communication at SDSU, San Diego State. We had to write a paper about something dark in human communication and I was looking for toxic leadership or something around that and found the phrase “workplace bullying” while I was writing that paper and I’ve been obsessed ever since. The short version is I had all of this information rolling around in my head when I got out of grad school and I just had to get it out on paper.

Brandon: Well, that’s so unfortunate that you had to deal with that personally, but I’m so glad that something really good could come out of it, because I felt like you have given a blueprint for not only managers and leaders of companies to help their employees. But if people are being bullied, the blueprint is in here to deal with it themselves and to walk through it. I’m really happy that you have written this book and are willing to share. So that’s something that’s really important.

Catherine: Thank you!

Brandon: If you’re going to sum this up though, how do we as HR professionals and managers and business leaders and people who want to grow in terms of people development, communication, HR, those kinds of things. How do those people shut down bullying? What do they do?

Catherine: Do you want the short answer or the long answer?

Brandon: It’s your call! I’ve got the time.

Catherine: Well, the short answer is to use your performance management system. I get this question all the time from HR. They’ll say bullying is not illegal. It’s perfectly legal. How do I fire someone? But we fire people all the time for lack of performance, there are no laws around lack of performance. It’s not illegal to be a poor performer, yet we fire people all the time for that and discipline them and bullying is purely a lack of performance. So yes, you can send someone down the disciplinary process if they don’t change. That’s my short tip.

But ultimately, the long and more complicated answer is culture change. Bullying happens because of the culture. As I said at the beginning, it’s the organization’s fault that it’s happening. They’ve created a context for bullying to thrive. When I work with clients, I take them through this whole process, we do a needs analysis so we can understand what the systemic problems are. Often lacking a good performance management system is part of the problem. Then we implement a healthy workplace policy, we do training around bullying, but ultimately, it’s around positive work environment. You know, how do you give feedback to your peers in the right way, how do you listen and build relationships, that’s what the training is about. Then we work on a strategic plan to change the culture. So that’s the long answer.

Brandon: To me, it seems like there are two buckets for this, if you want to really get rid of bullying. One is on the reactive side, it’s probably documentation of what’s happening, using the performance review, performance improvement plans, corrective action. All those sorts of things to like fight off incidents.

Catherine: Right.

Brandon: But then you have this other underlying thing which is, we need to change the culture, and that’s through processes, performance review systems, training, learning and development, communication training, all of those things, to really make it lasting so that these little incidents don’t happen anymore. Is that kind of what you’re saying?

Catherine: That’s exactly right. Yeah.

Brandon: Perfect. Awesome. So this has been a really great conversation. Anything else you want to say? Do you want to mention your book? Any other website links or anything else you’re working on that you want people to know about?

Catherine: So I’ve got two books right now, Back Off! as we’ve been talking about. That’s for targets. I have another book called Seeking Civility. That book is for leaders and managers in HR. It actually lays out my ten-step process for solving bullying. I’m working on another book with the National Workplace Bullying Coalition. I happen to be the president of that non-profit and we’re actually collecting stories from people who have been bullied but survived. So I’m looking for people kind of like me that had a bad experience and are thriving now. I think we need more stories of success in terms of bullying.

In terms of just sort of a final comment, I would say I believe that it is our moral and ethical responsibility to create environments where our employees are thriving. If you’re not doing that, if your culture is negative and people aren’t thriving, there’s a ripple effect into your community. Someone has a rough day because they were bullied, they go home, they share that with their family, their family takes that negativity out into the community. On the flipside, if they’re having a great day at work, they take that home to their family and their family members take that happiness and positivity out into your community. So I believe you’re not doing your job in HR if you’re not focused on creating a positive work environment.

Brandon: Catherine, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We appreciate it.

Catherine: Thank you so much for having me!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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