Bullying in the Workplace – Against the Law? What Healthcare Leaders Need to Know

Jamie was an eager and hardworking new nurse. She was excited to land a job working in the Emergency Department at a large Level I trauma hospital; her dream job. However, it wasn’t long before Jamie realized she made a mistake.

The ED had a reputation of “eating their young” as many of the experienced nurses thought that new nurses need to “pay their dues” before having the privilege of working in the prestigious ED. Jamie was yelled at and criticized constantly, blamed for things she didn’t do, and deliberately set up to fail by her coworkers.

Jamie complained to her manager numerous times yet the manager failed to address her complaints. Instead, her manager told Jamie to “lighten up” and not to be so sensitive.  The manager actually defended the other nurses by saying that instead of Jamie complaining about them, she should try to learn from them. After all, they were “excellent” nurses. Jamie decided to toughen up and really tried to fit in but started suffering headaches, GI disturbances, and anxiety attacks to the point where she was afraid of making mistakes at work. Jamie was left with no other option than to quit her dream job.

Did Jamie fail or did Jamie’s manager fail?

I hear stories like Jamie’s almost every day. A nurse feels targeted by one or more coworkers, reaches out to the manager for help, yet the manager “does nothing”.  While I know that sometimes, the manager IS doing something about it but can’t say anything because of confidentiality, many times the manager isn’t doing anything about it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know how to handle the situation and other times it’s because they are a part of the problem too.

Healthcare organizations have to ask themselves the question – What responsibility do they have to protect employees from bullying coworkers?


“Employers have a duty to protect employees,” comments Rick Birdsall, a former employment attorney turned HR consultant. He reminds us, “If they fail to control the workplace, they potentially breach their duty.”

Managers have the responsibility to listen and take action when receiving complaints of any behavior that violates policy, patient care, and team performance. But what happens when the whole system is unsupportive? Birdsall predicts that in the same way we’ve seen support grow with regard to sexual harassment, we may expect to see that same growth with regard to bullying and the obligations supervisory staff have to protect their employees.

A nurse was awarded $348,889 in a bullying trial against a physician and his medical practice for sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation (Patricia Hahn v. Scott Davidson, MD, et al.) The clinic ultimately settled, paying $440,000.

While all states have now adopted laws protecting children from bullying in school, many states are now adding anti-bullying legislation in the workplace to their platforms. California, Utah, Tennessee all have some version of legislation that protect employees from their bullying coworkers.

We are also beginning to see a trend against bullying among the nursing giants.  

In October of 2017, The Magnet® Recognition program added criteria for Magnet® designation regarding addressing physical and verbal violence. EP15EO requires organizations seeking Magnet® designation to show robust data and interventions regarding workplace violence, bullying, and incivility toward nurses.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) gathered expert nurses to discuss and develop a position statement regarding disruptive behaviors. In 2015, the ANA released a position statement on bullying, incivility, and workplace violence. In their statement, they include intervention recommendations for employers and employees.

5 Steps Leaders Can Take to Protect Employees from Bullying

If you are in a leadership role, you have an ethical responsibility to protect your employees from any form of disruptive behavior. But where do you begin?

First, you need to get clear on what bullying is and what it is not. Not all bad behaviors are bullying. Click here to learn more.

Second, get a copy of any organizational policy related to disruptive behavior. Pay particular attention to the employer’s responsibility and the actions THEY need to take. This is usually listed under the heading of “process” or “procedure.”

Third, schedule a meeting with your HR representative to discuss how complaints of disruptive behavior should be handled. You may find that your HR rep isn’t clear either! The goal is to co-develop of process for how you will address complaints of bullying behavior.

Fourth, set behavioral expectation with your employees. We do a great job setting performance expectations but a lousy job telling people how to behave. Get together with your employees and ask, “How do we ALWAYS want to treat each other? How do we NEVER want to treat each other?” Their answers should help you form behavioral expectations for your department.

And fifth, hold employees accountable for BEHAVIOR just as you would for their performance. It’s not okay to justify someone’s bad behavior just because they are clinically competent.

Changing a bullying culture to a professional one can often be very difficult, especially when leadership fails to address complaints of bad behavior. But change is POSSIBLE! The fight against bullying requires employers and employees working together to recognize and take action against disruptive behaviors that undermine a culture of safety and respect.

We are hemorrhaging really good nurses, like Jamie, to bullying and can no longer afford to use silence as a strategy. Ignorance isn’t a defense.

About Renee Thompson

Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate bullying behavior. To find out how you can bring Renee to YOUR organization or nursing event, visit www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com

There are 4 comments on this post
  • Renee Thompson
    May 29, 2019 Reply

    Thank you! I am working with some wonderful nurses now! My manger is awesome! If things come up she says use this as a learning situation! And I get appreciated! Like for picking up shift, working when it snows and being flexible! I have no idea how to handle this !

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      Jun 02, 2019 Reply

      Love this!! Gives others hope that there are good places and good people out there. Thank you!

  • Renee Thompson
    Aileen Blowers
    May 29, 2019 Reply

    I really liked this article. I recently left hospital nursing after 25years. I was targeted by a group of nurses and my manager. Anytime a nurse complained she would call me into to meet with HR. For things like how I took a temperature, missing breaks, setting my phone down and a charge nurse complained that she had to take a message. A distraught parent verbally abused me and I was called into HR because they said I was not on my”A” game. The good news is that I have a great job now!

    • Renee Thompson
      Renee Thompson
      May 29, 2019 Reply

      Hi Aileen
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Wow. I'm so sorry you experienced this behavior from your coworkers and manager!!! Seriously - instead of finding reasons to pick on you, they should have been using that time to care for patients, support each other, help each other grow and succeed, etc. I'm so glad you found a better place!

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