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

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.

Read “Expert Answers on Workplace Bullying” for more advice.

Have you been a victim of workplace bullying? How did you deal with the problem? Share your story in the Comments section.








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  • Marguerite

    I am so happy this is starting to come out. I have been bullyed in the workplace for years, and stuck with it– knowing that my behavior was not in the wrong. I understood what was happening, as they were at fault and not me. I read Tim Field’s book, Bully in Sight, which is one of the best books ever. Jay McGraw (Dr Phil’s son) wrote a book more for teens being bullied, but what I have found, bullying does not have an age barrier.

    I have been trying to research why people bully, and where is it learned in our society. There are 16 deaths a day, both adults and kids, from bullying effects, which does not stop the problem. My favorite saying is “why are you so mean? And, it puts a human on the other side of the sting.

    Good luck, read all you can about this horrible aspect of our society. bullies don’t gain anything by what they do, Targets only get polished, while the bullies just get used up.

  • Max Pinto

    Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumors, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

    In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behavior is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counseling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  • CMOE

    “If you’re not getting the help you need from management, get out while you still have your sanity.” This is definitely an important piece of advice. Too many people stick with a bad situation and continue to hope that things will change, or thinking that quitting makes them look weak. But staying in a workplace rife with bullying behavior can wear a person down gradually.

    • tewdee

      I can see that my fate from being targeted is getting fired. I can see the writing on the wall. However, wherever I go, because of my good nature, and http://www.Bully(ing)online
      I will always be the target. After suffering during an illness while enduring almost 3 years of unemployment, other problems I faced were snobbery, shunning (all of your friends work and nag you about what you have been doing with your time-looking for a job (as if I didn’t know that watching the bills pile up)? Now that is what cost me my sanity; my present plan is to grab as much money as I can before I get fired. In my case, my Physician had said it is better for me to be fired. I will continue to do that which makes me a target, advocate for the better.

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  • Karen


    Work place bullying created by management a hostile working conditions read about it but never thought it could happen to me

    That’s why I created a petition to Governor Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama, which says:

    “Stop the workplace bullying caused by unprofessional managers who abuse their power to bully people who work hard”

    Will you sign this petition? Click here:


  • http://workplacebullying carlie

    I’ve worked with two big companies in the last fourteen years and both of them the managers have bullied me..My job I’m currently at my boss bullies me..I hate my job now.I sometimes get called outside my name.I get threatened she going to fire me.I’m not given anough time to finish my job,so I work off the clock to try to keep her off me..I’ve been wrote up a couple of times when people want buy the upsell products..I just hate my job now..When I need to be off sick because I’m sick she threatens me.She always makes some sort of remark when I need to be off for something.My foot doctor wanted me to take off work to let a place on foot heal and thats been over a year ago..And the place still hasn’t healed.When I tell her I need to be off she smarts off at me.She threatened me in front of another employee that has issues with me and I felt like that was the hammer that hit the nail on the head for her..I could just feel that person smiling with in..Leaving me feeling like shit..