Go Beyond Bullying Prevention to Create a Healthy Workplace

Employer policies should extend past harassment prevention


CHICAGO—To create a culture of civility—a positive environment in which employees will thrive—employers must focus on more than preventing unlawful harassment, said Catherine Mattice Zundel, SHRM-SCP, a consultant with Civility Partners in La Mesa, Calif. Employers need to prevent workplace bullying and create a safe and healthy workplace where employees can feel happy, Mattice Zundel said at a concurrent session during the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

She noted that the only difference between workplace bullying and harassment is the target. For harassment to be unlawful, it generally must be based on a protected characteristic, such as race, religion or sex.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

"Creating a positive culture creates peer pressure for people to act correctly," she said. Here are some steps employers can take to promote a healthy workplace culture.

Empower Employees to Respond

There's been a lot of talk about bystander or witness training since the #MeToo movement began, Mattice Zundel said. But she doesn't like the words "bystander" and "witness" because they are passive.

"If I'm at work every day, and I witness something happening, and I choose not to speak up, that makes me a reinforcer," she said. "It makes me an active participant in the problem."

Having a "see something, say something" policy is a good idea, but it isn't enough, she added. "You have to talk to people about how not to be a reinforcer."

To complicate matters, employees may not have the courage to speak up and might not know what to say when they do. "You have to teach your managers and employees how to see something and say something," she said. What are they looking for? And if they do see something, who do they say something to?

Focus on Culture

A healthy workplace stems from a healthy culture. Mattice Zundel recommended that attendees review the testimony of SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, before the California Legislature.

"In a healthy workplace culture, when sexual harassment is observed or experienced, the community takes over and shuts it down collectively, with a message that such behavior will not be tolerated by anyone at any level," Taylor said in January to the California Legislature's Joint Committee on Rules Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response.

You have to have the right policies, procedures and training in place, but those things alone aren't going to change culture, Mattice Zundel said.

Training has become very focused on complying with the letter of the law and what employees shouldn't do. "We have to focus our training on what we do want rather than what we don't want," Mattice Zundel said.

Conduct a Climate Assessment

Employers that are already doing an engagement survey should add certain questions:

  • Would you feel comfortable talking to a co-worker who is being bullied or harassed?
  • Would you feel comfortable reporting an incident to HR?
  • What would you do if you experienced workplace bullying or harassment?

HR might also arrange for one-on-one interviews with employees, but those should be conducted by someone outside the organization so that employees will be honest. The feedback can be used to make the business case to company leaders about improving the organization's civility program.

Implement a Healthy Workplace Policy

A healthy workplace policy should have a positive spin and focus on how employers want workers to act. Anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies already focus on behaviors employers don't want to see in the workplace.

Mattice Zundel regularly asks workshop attendees how they would like to be treated by their peers and managers, and she shares the responses with the group. "There's a real collective sigh of relief when people realize that everyone wants to be treated the same."

HR should ask workers this question, too. The responses can be incorporated in the healthy workplace policy or used as topics for lunch and learns and other activities. 

Annual Conference attendee Yvonne Bull, CFO of Produce Marketing Association in New Castle, Del., said she likes the idea of having a policy for healthy workplaces that extends beyond unlawful harassment. She also likes the idea of creating simple surveys to get an understand of what employees are thinking and how the organization can help them with any workplace issues.


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