5 Strategies to Protect Yourself from Retaliation When You Confront a Bully

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Bullying and incivility in healthcare are problems. We’ve ALL heard the phrase “nurses eat their young” yet bad behavior continues. Why? Dealing with human behavior versus clinical performance isn’t simple. It’s much easier to tell a coworker he needs to work on his IV insertion skills versus that he needs to treat you with respect. It’s not intuitive to be able to address bad behavior.

Ending workplace bullying is difficult at best. But the complexity of human behavior isn’t the biggest barrier to ending bullying in healthcare. So what is?

It’s not speaking up because you fear retaliation.

Fear of retaliation is one of the primary barriers to ending workplace bullying and in my experience, a bigger problem than you might realize.  

At the Healthy Workforce Institute, one of the ways we help healthcare organizations hardwire and sustain a professional and respectful workforce culture by reducing incidents of bullying and incivility is to first, get to the bottom of what’s actually happening by conducting a comprehensive assessment. After all, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t fully understand the problem.

Over the years, we’ve talked to thousands of employees about their perception of work culture. This is just a sampling of verbatim comments employees have shared with us related to fear of retaliation:

  • We don’t want to get her in trouble. We just want her to stop it.
  • If we say anything, he’ll find out and make our lives a living hell.
  • We’ve referred to the new nurses as the ‘sacrificial lambs’ when it’s their turn to give report to the mean nurses but there’s nothing we can do about it.

I had one nurse who share the following story, which brought me to tears:

She spoke up about a bully who would threaten other employees. She was also concerned about the patients too. The bully nurse got fired after a lengthy investigation that validated her concerns. Once this nurse was gone, the bully’s “buddies” would put rubber and plastic rats on her chair and on her locker. She then told me, “I spoke up and got bit. I’ll never speak up again.”

This is so so wrong!

Although I’d like to say that you and I could fix this and that there’s an easy solution, it’s not that simple. However, I can offer a few strategies that will reduce the impact of retaliation.

Five Strategies to Protect Yourself from Retaliation

  1. Document

I talk a lot about documentation but really it’s your secret weapon for ending workplace bullying. It’s even more important if you are concerned about retaliation. Start a documentation trail as soon as you sense a problem. Perhaps you confront the bully when she openly criticizes you in front of others and then when in charge, she gives you the worst assignment. Document this. Be as objective as possible. Do this ongoing until you have a collection of objective bad behavior. You may need this if her retaliation gets worse. 

  1. Link bullying behavior to patient safety

Anytime you can link the bully’s behavior to a patient safety issue – ding, ding, ding. Now YOU have some ammunition to protect yourself from retaliation.  Why? Because you have a better chance of the bully’s behavior being addressed by more than just you. Patient safety is on the radar of administration and is more likely to be addressed.  

One nurse shared with me that the bully took away her trach patient’s call bell and then wrote her up for “not having the call bell close to her patient.” What the bully didn’t realize was that patient witnessed her (bully) moving his call bell and reported it to the manager. Wow. Huge patient safety issue. If I were the bully’s boss, I’d fire her on the spot!

  1. Gather your posse

There is strength in numbers.  Chances are, you are not the only person who is getting “eaten” by this bully. Find others like you. Start joining forces – protect each other – watch each other’s backs – act as scouts for one another.

  1. Share your fears

The word retaliation is hardly ever spoken. It reminds me of the movie, A Lion King, when no one was allowed to say, Mufasa.  Tell your manager, educator, HR person, etc. Tell someone that you are experiencing a bullying situation but you’re keeping silent for fear of retaliation.

Why does this help? Imagine if 10 employees on separate occasions approached the manager and shared their concerns about retaliation. It would get someone’s attention! Say the word – RETALIATION. After all, the fear of retaliation is what is preventing us from ending the cycle of bullying. We need to name it.

  1. Recognize your fear and speak up anyway

Reality insight: If you document, link the behavior to patient safety and gather your posse, and she finds out – she may still retaliate.  So be prepared. You may be tempted to say that it’s not worth it and stay silent – that the fear of retaliation is too great.  Remember that the bully is relying on you and her other targets to think this way. That’s how they exert their power over you. Fear of retaliation is their most powerful weapon. They wield fear like a knife. Don’t give into that fear. Tap into your moral courage muscles and speak up. It’s okay to be afraid – speak up anyway!

Last resort – if you are working in a toxic environment where you can’t even imagine taking any action against a bully – GET OUT! Leave. You deserve to work in a supportive and nurturing environment.

Would love to read your comments about retaliation and any tips you think would benefit others.

Thanks so much for reading. Air hug to you all!


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4 thoughts on “5 Strategies to Protect Yourself from Retaliation When You Confront a Bully”

  1. What if you are in the environment where the new nurses want you( the older nurse) to leave? Comments have been made”you’ve carried the torch for a long time and now it’s our turn? One nurse in particular is constantly complaining to management about the assignment I give her…she’s says she wants to go home and when given the opportunity she says she can’t leave until her friends leave. Several nurses came from the same floor, with the same attitude….most with 5-7 years experience…it’s like the young want the old to leave and the old( including myself) aren’t old enough to leave. This has all been addressed with the leadership team and they take the younger nurses side about it. I am a recent coordinator( years of experience , recently given a title). I’m reading your articles and concerned that all of these new nurses go to the manager and complain, I’ll be the one out of a job as the management wants the younger nurses to stay for obvious reasons, money and one of the ANMs said you won’t be here that much longer anyways and they will. Getting out isn’t an option as this schedule works for helping to raise my grandson. I document and again the leadership team takes the younger nurses aide about most everything.

    1. Although we know new nurses are more vulnerable to incivility from the older, more experienced ones, we’ve also seen the opposite, as you’ve mentioned. I’ve written about this and discuss this issue with leaders who need to address disruptive behaviors – even with the newer nurses! I’m sorry you’ve been through this. It shouldn’t be this way!

  2. Wow, I learned something new today. Nurses who are supposed to be caring people are bullies. I never saw that in my day as a nurse’s aid.

    1. Well, I’m glad you never witnessed nurses behaving badly. The good news is that most nurses are compassionate and respectful towards each other.

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