Workplace Bullying: How to Stop It and Get Your Career Back

by Jul 16, 2012

(Article originally posted on’s career management blog, MonsterWorking. Read the original article here.)

Catherine Mattice is the president of Civility Partners, a training and consulting firm focused on helping organizations build positive workplace cultures. She runs the educational website, has served as a subject-matter expert in court cases against workplace bullies, and is a co-author of the book, Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, which will be available on Amazon in September 2012. We recently spoke to Mattice about the subject of workplace bullying — what it is, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Monster: What is “workplace bullying.” What’s the difference between an acceptable level of on-the-job stern discipline and bullying?

Catherine Mattice: Workplace bullying has four defining characteristics that stern discipline does not have:

  1. Bullying is ongoing psychological abuse, including aggressive communication, humiliation, and manipulation.
  2. Bullying results in psychological damage for targets and witnesses (people who don’t identify as a target of bullying but see bullying happening around them). For example, research has shown both targets and witnesses experience depression, anxiety, and even PTSD, which can result in things like sleepless nights, stomachaches, and heart problems.
  3. Bullying results in an unfair match, or power imbalance, much like the one a battered wife and her violent husband have.
  4. Bullying is costly for the organization due to reduced morale and productivity from targets and witnesses.

Stern discipline includes coaching poor performers through harsh chastisement, or motivating employees with assertiveness or aggression. Bullying includes calling people names when they don’t perform, taking credit for others’ successes, or arbitrarily punishing people. In other words, tough bosses are still coming from a place of encouragement to succeed. Bullying comes from a place of ill-treatment and desire to push the target out of the organization.

Monster: If you’re being bullied, should you talk to the bully (or bullies) to try to straighten things out yourself?

CM: Bullying starts when one initial bullying incident occurs and targets don’t defend themselves, which gives bullies the impression they can push a little without any push back. Then a second bullying incident happens, and again there is no push back; then a third; and so forth. If you stand up for yourself immediately during those first few incidents, you can likely avoid falling into the trap of target-hood.

If the bullying has been going on for awhile, many experts will tell you not to speak up because the research shows that standing up for yourself can make the bullying worse. But, from a manager’s viewpoint — and if you are going to be successful in making a complaint later — targets who have taken steps to resolve their own issues are taken more seriously than those who have not. Standing up for yourself, and sharing the results with management, helps them see you as a solution-oriented asset rather than a whiner who can’t get along with co-workers. Unfortunately, the latter is how many targets are seen by HR.

Monster: What are the steps you should take to resolve a bullying situation?

CM: Stand up for yourself a few times. If that doesn’t work, report it to your manager or HR. To be successful in filing a grievance, you should:

  1. Document everything. Every time a bullying incident happens write down the who, what, when, where and why. Also keep any bullying emails or other tangible documents.
  2. Try to determine cost of the bullying. Managers will respond to a business case for ending bullying more so than they will respond to, “I’m hurting, can you help me?” Quantify the damage as best you can, and your manager will be more responsive.
  3. Talk to the manager about the bullying behavior, not about your feelings. Many targets are not heard because they focus the conversation on them. In turn, they are seen as the problem. Instead, focus on the bullying behavior and why it hurts the organization.
  4. Offer solutions. What do you want from management? Are you seeking training for your team? A transfer? Coaching for the bully? Determine a few solutions to offer up so you appear proactive, and not just showing up with a complaint.

Monster: Does this change if your boss or supervisor is the bully?

CM: If your boss is a bully, you should still speak to him or her first about the behavior. If it doesn’t change, then seek help from the bully’s boss, and go up the chain of command as far as you need to, or speak to HR.

You are not required to sit back and take it just because it’s your boss — everyone has the right to work in a healthy work environment.

Monster: What if you are unable to resolve the situation at your workplace? Where should you turn, outside your employer, for help?

CM: You might try your employee assistance professional (EAP) or union representative, if you have access to them. You may also consider talking to a lawyer. Although bullying in the majority of the U.S. is legal at this time, a lawyer can help you determine what options you do have.

Most importantly, take care of you. Know that many people have continued to work in a bullying situation and in the end, to be blunt, found themselves fired, depressed and unable to find a new job. If you’re not getting the help you need from management, get out while you still have your sanity.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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