Q & A with #SHRM16 Presenter Catherine Mattice

As part of our coverage of the 2016 SHRM Annual Conference, each of the official bloggers is conducting a Q&A with one of the session speakers.  The speaker I chose was Catherine Mattice of Civility Partners.  Her session, “The Real World: Case Studies of Real Organizations Who Solved Their Workplace Bullying Problems” caught my eye for several reasons.  First, I’m an HR practitioner, so any session that focuses on solutions to real world problems interests me.  Second, workplace bullying is a topic that I believe is gaining more traction and attention. I’m personally a believer in the power of great workplaces and great cultures, and bullying behavior runs contrary to that.  And finally, on my blog Women of HR, we recently ran a post on this very topic, so I was curious to hear what Catherine had to say.  Here’s what we discussed…

Let’s start by telling us a little about yourself and background?

I have been in HR for over 15 years. Through my consulting firm, Civility Partners, I have worked with Fortune 100 companies, the military, international nonprofits, hospitals, universities, government agencies, and businesses of all shapes and sizes.   I have appeared on Al Jazeera, FOX, NBC and ABC; been cited in Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post and USA Today; and published in a lot of trade magazines. I am co-author of the book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-A** Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, with a foreword by Ken Blanchard, who called it, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” 

I am Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter, and one of the four founding members of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on ending workplace bullying through education, conversation and legislation.

Why bullying?  What drew you to the work you do and why do you think it’s a relevant topic for today’s HR pros?

While serving as the Director of Human Resources for a nonprofit organization, I found myself working with a bully. Fascinated by the fact that no one ever stood up to this person, and that the Executive Director wouldn’t dare address the bullying behavior, I wrote a paper on toxic leadership for one of my grad school classes. That’s when I discovered the phrase “workplace bullying” and I have been living, breathing, sleeping, and eating it ever since. Every paper after that in school was on bullying, and I wrote my Master’s thesis on the topic too, which I dedicated to the “Post It Nazi” (which is what we called the bully).

I think it’s relevant for today’s pros for several reasons:

1.       Those of us in the workplace bullying “field” see bullying as an overarching behavior, with harassment, discrimination and hazing as subsets of bullying. Just because the law only prohibits one subset of bullying, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be putting a stop to all of these bad behaviors. To be clear, the only reason harassment is a subset of bullying is the law makes it so. Bullying and harassment are EXACTLY the same behaviors, the only difference is that when they’re aimed at a protected class they’re illegal.

2.       Great cultures are the new way of doing things. Millennials are coming into the workforce; they and the next generation after them are going to be hyper sensitive to bullying given all of the media attention on it in their lifetime. They aren’t going to tolerate it at work.

3.       HR’s job is to foster an organization’s greatest asset. HR is the keeper of the one thing that will make or break an organization’s success – employees. Why an HR person would ignore bullying, then, totally boggles my mind.

Do you think that bullying is a more serious problem than many HR pros and business acknowledge?  And do you think that certain industries or environments are more prone to it?  Or is a more global issue?

Yes!!! As I said, harassment is only a subset of bullying, so if you’re only focused on harassment you’re focused on a quarter of the problem. Just because employees can’t sue over it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about it.

It’s been an interesting journey over the last 8 years as I’ve been doing this, because at first when I’d call up HR groups to speak, they’d tell me harassment was already covered and they don’t need me to speak. They clearly didn’t get it. Even at my first SHRM conference they had me in the last spot on the last day, and I brought 20 handouts with me thinking, based on my experience trying to speak to HR groups, that no one would come. But, I had 300 people, standing room only, and it was awesome. Over time the number of attendees at SHRM has gone up to 500, 700, 1200, and this year I’m speaking twice. So HR is paying more and more attention, but there’s still a lot of disbelievers.

Research can actually answer your second question. Everyone agrees that bureaucracy, many long-time employees, many well-educated employees and high stress environments mixed in together breeds bullying. So education, healthcare and government agencies are the three industries where bullying really, really seems to thrive. But, any industry and any organization can have bullying. When there’s people, there’s a chance for bullying.

It is a global issue, but many other countries have laws against it. The UK, for example, has laws against harassment but doesn’t differentiate between harassment aimed at a protected class or not. Equal opportunity harassment is illegal there. Sweden, Ireland and many other European countries have laws against it. The US, however, only has four states with laws about workplace bullying (and only one actually prohibits it). We’re just super far behind the curve.

What I don’t understand is this: When it’s aimed at a protected class, people think it should be illegal and the perpetrator should be stopped. People are disgusted by the news articles they read about people like Bob Filner, San Diego’s former mayor, accused of sexual harassment. But when it’s aimed at everyone, people think it should not be illegal and it’s just bad leadership. They think the target is just being sensitive. The behaviors are THE SAME. Why is it that who they are aimed at makes such a difference in people’s perception of the behavior? I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

Sometimes I think that the word “bullying” can be thrown around lightly, and I hear examples of employees that claim bullying when it’s really a matter of being held accountable.  What do you see as the difference between bullying and just tough management?  Where is the line between holding staff accountable and bullying?

I hear that all the time. The bottom line is that if managers set clear expectations, and do performance coaching right, then no one will accuse them of bullying. I suspect what often happens is the manager doesn’t know how to do performance coaching well, so what they are doing to improve performance or hold people accountable is being perceived as bullying.  Rather than blame the target, and say, “they’re just accusing me of bullying because they don’t want to be accountable,” the manager should look at themselves, and ask, “How can I get better at coaching performance?”  Further, HR should be ensuring managers know how to “do” performance management and coaching, including evaluations, coaching, on the job training, etc.

In terms of tough bosses and bullying, the main difference is the goal of the behavior. A tough boss will give credit when due, push workers hard, and communicate, albeit aggressively. A bullying boss will take credit for the work of others, call employees stupid, and withhold information someone needs to do their job well.  Tough bosses are still focused on success, even though it comes out rough. Bullies are focused on hindering success of the person they are bullying.

Anything else that you’d like to share about why conference participants should attend your session?

I plan to provide actual case studies of organizations who solved bullying. If you need an action plan, I will provide it.

Well, there you have it.  Thank you Catherine for the valuable insight!  Seems like workplace bullying is a very relevant topic for today’s HR pros and something to which we should all be paying attention.  Attending SHRM16 and interested in learning more as well as hearing about how the problem was solved in the real world?  Check out Catherine’s sessions on Tuesday, June 21st from 10:45 – Noon, and Wednesday, June 22nd from 11:30 - 12:45 pm.



The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: