Episode 281: Toxic Workplaces and Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is on the rise. While statistics vary, some studies reveal that nearly half of all American workers have been affected by workplace bullying, either as a target or as a witness to abusive behavior against a co-worker. It creates a toxic work environment, leads to high employee turnover rates, and costs companies billions of dollars each year. 

Episode 281: Toxic Workplaces and Workplace Bullying with Catherine Mattice Zundel (@catmattice)

I spoke to Catherine Mattice Zundel, a strategic HR consultant, coach and trainer who partners with clients to replace toxic workplace behaviors and cultures with positive, respectful ones. She founded Civility Partners in 2008 as a result of working in a toxic environment. She’s written three books, one of which Ken Blanchard called, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic” of workplace bullying. Catherine is active in the International Association for Workplace Bullying & Harassment (IAWBH) and one of the four founding members of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on ending workplace bullying.

Catherine said that she founded Civility Partners in 2008 as a result of working in a toxic environment. “I was the director of HR at an organization and there was another director there who engaged in toxic behavior…he had lots of turnover in his department and that created a lot of toxicity for me because as director of HR I had to handle it. I felt attacked by him and between being caught in the middle and that it impacted my work product. During that time, I mustered up enough energy to get a master’s degree. I joke and say that I have my Masters in Workplace Bullying.”

“There are two main things that we do that help solve the problem of bullying: leadership coaching specifically for abrasive or aggressive leaders and executives, and we also do a lot of work in workplace environments where there is a climate of bullying to create plans to turn that around.” 

An uncertain economy can create the perfect storm for workplace bullying. Catherine explained that “the research is clear around bullying that the organizational climate facilitates it. For example, a high stress environment, when people are working alone – like our current one where we’re working from home – and it can isolate people who are trying to appear as confident and capable as they can because they are worried about losing their jobs. As a result, people are less likely to report bullying.”

Who are the bullies in the workplace? Catherine said “the people I coach are generally higher up in the organization…they are extraordinarily focused on competence and want to be seen as the most competent person and they live in a world of anxiety around that. They are seen as valuable to the organization because they are successful, but it is driven by a fear of being seen as incompetent.”

“When a less than confident person perceives a threat, that’s when the bullying comes out.” - @catmattice #BullyingatWork #ToxicWorkplaces #WorkologyPodcast Click To Tweet

Catherine added that “bullies also tend to be really focused on the success of the organization and their team, which is ironic, so coaching feedback directly impacts what they’re passionate about. In coaching, we use this to reframe how they interact within the organization.”

How We Can Make an Impact in a Toxic Workplace

Two-thirds of employees report that poor mental health has undercut their job performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 40% of employees are battling burnout, according to a survey by mental health benefits provider Lyra Health and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. Add bullying and a toxic workplace to this and we have a broader cultural problem.

Catherine said that “workplace bullying is an organizational problem; HR is very focused on the individuals involved in incidents of bullying. We don’t always realize that the problem is likely related to the culture of the entire organization. HR needs to teach supervisors and managers how to handle incivility at the team and organizational level, to step in and coach the behavior early, and those who are coached to behave better will engage in more positive behaviors as they move through the ranks of the organization. The earlier it’s brought to their attention, the easier it is to change.”

It’s really important for HR leaders to be able to support employees who are being bullied at work and ensure that the workplace isn’t a toxic one. While it might be surprising to some that bullying can continue into adulthood, more people can identify with this experience and must be able to rely on HR to remedy the problem. I really appreciate Catherine’s expertise and advice!

Listen to the entire podcast to hear Catherine’s advice on how HR leaders can combat bullying in the workplace, what that process looks like, whether or not bullies are self aware, and some really great examples of behavioral coaching. 

Connect with Catherine Mattice Zundel.


– Catherine Mattice Zundel on LinkedIn

– Catherine Mattice on Twitter

  Civility Partners

– Catherine’s books

– International Association for Workplace Bullying & Harassment (IAWBH) 

– National Workplace Bullying Coalition

– Episode 255: When Competition Is Bad in the Workplace

– Standing Up to Bullies in the HR & Recruiting Industry

Episode Transcript

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.


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