Personnel Safety, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Workplace Bullying Is a Workplace Safety Issue

Some EHS professionals may consider bullying an issue that falls on the shoulders of human resources (HR) to address. That’s a mistake, according to Catherine Mattice-Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, president of Civility Partners and a speaker at the upcoming 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium, taking place March 14th through 15th in San Antonio, Texas.

Workplace bullying, violence

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Research varies on how many people experience bullying, but studies agree that the problem is widespread and destructive. However, with the help of people like Mattice-Zundel, it is also solvable. She will be presenting an educational session, Beyond the Active Shooter: Addressing Bullying, Sexual Harassment, and Domestic Violence in the Workplace, at the 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium.

The Effect of Bullying

Mattice-Zundel says that the significant effects of bullying in the workplace are very well understood, noting that there have been 40 years of academic research into the topic. She says, “people at the receiving end of bullying experience anxiety, stress, and depression.” Research shows that many develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something that Mattice-Zundel says she has witnessed firsthand. Indeed, workplace bullying is so serious that it can result in suicidal thoughts, tendencies, and behaviors combined with drug use.

Mattice-Zundel finds that the results of domestic violence make a good analog for bullying. She says, “people feel powerless, and helpless, and alone, and trapped, and that’s all very damaging.” With endless studies and reports about the value of employee engagement and motivation, imagine how destructive bullying can be to those efforts.

The destructive effects of workplace bullying do not stop at the victim. They also permeate those who witness the bullying, says Mattice-Zundel. “They are also living in fear, stress, and anxiety,” she says.

Some victims have no recourse when they are being targeted because they do not belong to a protected class. But that doesn’t have to be the case, says Mattice-Zundel. At the top level, she suggests opening workplace harassment laws that are currently based around protected groups to all people so that harassment wouldn’t be tolerated in any form.

Is Bullying Really a Workplace Safety Issue?

Another approach, according to Mattice-Zundel, would be for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take workplace bullying under its auspices as a workplace safety matter. She says that “people have to feel emotionally safe as well as physically safe.”

In fact, Mattice-Zundel looks at workplace bullying from a safety perspective. For example, when she encourages employers to have an antibullying policy, she calls it a “healthy workplace policy.” These policies require respect and civility in the workplace. “It holds people accountable to being civil to one another,” says Mattice-Zundel.

The kinds of stress that bullying causes for victims and witnesses can be extreme, and they can result in physical expressions of that stress. Mattice-Zundel says, “if you are stressed out all the time your muscles are tense, you are getting headaches, your back hurts all the time, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you get heart disease.” These problems certainly constitute a workplace health issue.

There are connections between bullying and workplace violence. Mattice-Zundel notes that some OSHA regulations do talk about verbal threats and intimidation. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has a national standard of workplace violence that talks about “concepts like fear and intimidation” says Mattice-Zundel.

Mattice-Zundel says she would go so far as to say that bullying is a form of workplace violence. She gave an example of someone who yelled so hard at an employee that the employee had a panic attack, his tongue swelled up, and he gave such a powerful fear response that he could not move.

There is another type of workplace violence that can occur surrounding bullying: the occasional violent reaction of those who are bullied. Mattice-Zundel explains that she had two different clients get in touch with her because an employee that had been bullied committed suicide on the worksite. In each case, the victims left a note about their treatment as the reason why they killed themselves.

2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium

The Contagious Nature of Bullying

Bullying is a learned behavior, and because it’s learned, it can also be taught. I asked Mattice-Zundel about how contagious bullying might be. “I’ve coached individuals who learned it from others” says Mattice-Zundel. She relates stories of people who learned aggressive managing from their managers and continued it forward. “Aggressiveness is contagious just like happiness is,” she says. Being soft on bullies or allowing it to happen in the workplace can become an ongoing legacy. “Culture is about infectious behavior, good or bad.”


Mattice-Zundel says that while many current systems for dealing with bullying and harassment might be wanting, there are methods for preventing workplace bullying. She recommends:

  1. Having a healthy workplace policy and/or an antibullying policy. She says, “Even though there isn’t a law, certainly you can dictate whether or not bullying is happening within the laws of your organization.”
  2. Companywide training around positive topics. Mattice-Zundel says that would include training for resilience, optimism, happiness, assertiveness, and to ask people to say something if they see something. “Giving them the tools to build positivity in their own lives and for each other” can make a big difference, according to her.
  3. Managers need training about stepping in and coaching behavior. “A lot of managers barely know how to coach performance let alone behavior,” says Mattice-Zundel. They need to be trained on how to create a positive workplace environment.
  4. Core values. “Your company has a strategic plan for 10% growth, culture should be in there too,” says Mattice-Zundel.
  5. Holding people accountable. Measure people on your company’s core values and on people’s incivility. Then hold them accountable with disciplinary actions when they step out of line. If safety pros supported by HR step in and says they are not tolerating negative behavior like incivility, it can make a big difference, says Mattice-Zundel, and can help stop incivility from spreading.
  6. Strong leadership. The success of a bullying prevention program hinges on whether a leader is willing to say that he or she is no longer going to tolerate that kind of behavior.

Mattice-Zundel cautions that “it’s a process, it’s not easy.” But that shouldn’t stop people from trying, she says.

What if the Leaders Are the Bullies?

The Workplace Bullying Institute says that more than 70% of bullies in the workplace are the bosses. I asked Mattice-Zundel what happens when the problem is at the top. “Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do … unless you have the right kind of relationship with the right people,” says Mattice-Zundel. If you don’t have a great relationship with the CEO or other leadership, it can be an uphill battle.

Mattice-Zundel explains, “CEOs also need to be told that their behavior isn’t going to work. One approach is to talk about harassment claims, that they are opening the door to being accused of creating a hostile work environment.”

What if all of that doesn’t work? Mattice-Zundel says, “If you have tried everything, I often tell people to quit. Leave.”

Patrick PrinceCatherine Mattice-Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is an internationally recognized expert on the topic of workplace bullying, and she partners with her clients to effectively eradicate it through proactive, strategic approaches. She has also served as an expert witness several times in bullying-related cases, and has published articles in a variety of industry trade magazines, appeared on CNN and NPR, and was a regular contributor to Forbes. She co-authored the book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, which Ken Blanchard called, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook” on the topic. Her second is book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers & HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying, and she recently released a third called, Stand Up, Speak Out, a set of stories she collected from people who have survived workplace bullying and have experienced personal growth as a result.

Catherine will be presenting an educational session, “Beyond the Active Shooter: Addressing Bullying, Sexual Harassment, and Domestic Violence in the Workplace,” at BLR’s upcoming 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium, taking place March 14 through 15 in San Antonio, Texas. Register Now!


2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium