HR Management & Compliance

Is Workplace Bullying Just Legal Harassment?

I recently sat down with Catherine Mattice, a consultant, coach, and trainer, to discuss the nature of workplace bullying. Research varies on how many people experience bullying, but they agree that the problem is widespread, destructive and, with the help of people like Mattice, solvable.

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The Effect of Bullying

Mattice 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 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 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. “They are also living in fear, stress, and anxiety,” she says.

The Connection Between Workplace Bullying and Harassment

There seems to be a perception that bullying and harassment are somehow separate. I certainly read articles regularly that are about one or the other topic. When I asked Mattice about the relationship between bullying and harassment, she said, “they are the same behaviors. The only difference is who they are aimed at.”

The who matters a lot, legally speaking. Mattice says, “If you bully someone because of their race or religion, then that’s harassment.” She continued, “if you are an equal opportunity bully then you are protected” under the law. What are the consequences of this? Some employees will file a hostile workplace suit because they are being bullied. According to Mattice, the focus is often on whether a protected group was the target. A lot of times, in her experience, investigators come back and say that there was no protected class so there is no suit.

Even if some types of bullying might not be legally defined as creating a hostile work environment, Mattice notes that resulting emotions and feelings on the part of the harassed or bullied feel like a hostile work environment. The frustration for many victims becomes having no recourse other than accepting the bullying or quitting.

Making Room for Bullying in Existing Employment Law

Some victims have no recourse when they are not being targeted because they belong to a protected class. But that doesn’t have to be the case, says Mattice. 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, 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 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.

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 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 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.

Mattice 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 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.

In part 2 of this article we’ll explore more about bullying, including the importance of accountability as well as some methods for preventing bullying.