Beating Bullies Means Standing Up and Being Heard

Share with your friends

Share on Pinterest

Nurse BullyingBullies inflict damage in the workplace like termites damage a home, and the bullies are a lot more difficult to exterminate.

Once you’ve been beset by workplace bullying, it means you have a problem too severe to ignore. The experts say you have to try to repair the damage inflicted on you.

“Bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organization that says more than one-third of the victims, or targets, are nurses. “Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence. Because it is abusive, it causes both emotional and stress-related physical harm.”

In other words, the unfairness of the situation is likely to tie you in knots. That’s why addressing that harm is at least as important as trying to eradicate the source, say Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, the site proprietors.

That’s partly, they admit, because your chances of eradicating the source are not very good. “Bullying is primarily legal in America,” Gary Namie acknowledged. “Unless there’s sexual coercion, there’s no legal protection. If you’re the same gender, same race, you’re stuck.”

Worse, he says the odds are 2-1 that you’ll be the one who departs.

It’s “very rare” for nurse bullies to get in trouble for their behavior, said Martha Griffin, Ph.D., a professor at the New England Institute of Technology, in a 2015 Marie Claire article. The bully is usually a more highly regarded employee than the target, and supervisors are limited by what they actually witness.

Yet the experts insist that you confront the bullying, even though it’s likely to end badly.

Silence only perpetuates a problem that is endemic to nursing. “Everyone knows about it, but nobody wants to admit it,” Griffin says. “Because we know the patients aren’t as safe in hospitals that harbor behaviors like this.”

“Targets who skulk away in silence, shrouded in personal shame, suffer the most. It can take a year or more to rebound to the point of being able to seek work. Those who leave proudly bounce back the fastest.”

The Marie Claire article pointed out some other examples, such as refusal to help the target with physical complications, such as moving a large patient who suffers as a result. Gary Namie said he has consulted at three hospitals where nurse bullying was a factor in a patient’s death.

“The families never know,” Namie says. “People die because older cliques torment the newbies. They make new nurses play guessing games with respect to techniques, and when [new nurses] ask a question, they say, ‘You’re supposed to know. Why would I tell you? You’re so stupid.’ ”

These examples are cause for taking action or reporting to supervisors — or even legal action, if the bullying rises to the level of assault and battery, or even harassment.

A 2010 article by Carolyn Buppert, NP, JD on defines those issues in a nursing context. It says assault is a threat of physical attack or an actual attempt to cause bodily harm. Battery is assault with actual physical contact.

Harassment is a bit murkier. The federal penal code defines it as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such a person and serves no legitimate purpose (such as a phone call made for no reason except to upset the target).” In some jurisdictions, it might mean taunts calculated to provoke a violent response, or nonviolent physical contact.

If it the offense doesn’t rise to a level appropriate for legal response but it’s still bullying, it’s still necessary to get it on the record.

Dr. Renee Thompson, an authority on nurse bullying, suggests finding other targets to file a joint complaint is more effective than doing it individually. No matter how large the complaint force, it’s necessary to build a case (keeping the documentation away from the workplace), using verbatim comments and always linking behavior to patient safety and quality of care.

But don’t go to Human Resources. In a 2012 Workplace Bullying Institute survey of 1,598 respondents, nearly half complained formally to H.R., which was effective in only 4.7 percent of the cases.

“Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence. Because it is abusive it causes both emotional and stress-related physical harm.” – The Workplace Bullying Institute

And don’t enlist patients’ help unless the patients have made a point of telling you what bullies or managers have said about you.

Even a nurse manager might not be the right starting point, but often is.

“Nurse managers and chief nursing officers have an important role in breaking the bullying cycle and maintaining the new culture,” says “They should encourage staff to report bullying incidents, ensure that those who experience and report abusive incidents will be safe from retribution, and take action to discipline bullies, counsel victims, and implement corrective measures to prevent recurrence.”

But too often the bully is the nurse manager’s protégé, so that can be an inadvisable way to try to stop the bully. Even when the organization has developed anti-retaliation policies, bullies get away with retaliating anyway.

The bottom line is that you’re probably going to end up leaving, and you need to do that in the best shape possible.

The Workplace Bullying Institute makes several recommendations to that end:

  • Commit to a fight-back strategy. Refuse to be passive, whether you remain on the job or not.
  • Tell co-workers, friends and family. Ask for help.
  • Enlist an attorney for a one-hour consultation.
  • Assume the crisis will undermine your health. Get physical checkups and emotional counseling.
  • Hold the employer accountable for putting you in harm’s way.

“Targets who skulk away in silence, shrouded in personal shame, suffer the most. It can take a year or more to rebound to the point of being able to seek work. Those who leave proudly bounce back the fastest.”

Learn More: Click to view related resources.

Back to: Nursing Newsroom