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

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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?

What does legal say?

“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.

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10 thoughts on “Bullying in the Workplace – Against the Law? What Healthcare Leaders Need to Know”

  1. Aileen Blowers

    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!

    1. Renee Thompson

      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!

  2. 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 !

    1. Renee Thompson

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

  3. Lou Ann Schisler

    I’ve been a nurse for 39 years. I was layed off in 2012 when the hospital I worked at for 32 years had financial problems. Starting over again has been very difficult. Even though I have been a nurse for many years, when you’re starting over you are a newbie. Over the last 7 years I have been bullied, harrassed and talked down to numerous times by employees in all different areas of the medical field. I have reported this to managers and HR and nothing was done. I have had to quit numerous jobs because I decided I’m through having this done to me. Now, since I was bullied, it’s very difficult to find another job, when potential employer’s see how many jobs you have had. I am a very good nurse who has been made to look bad due to being a victim of bullying. It’s wide spread in the nursing/medical field. I need to work another 8 years before I can get full retirement. I’m not sure where to turn. There’s no one there to help or listen. Due to other people’s actions I’m having to find another job, looking like I’m the problem, when I was the one subjected to bullying by co-workers over and over.

    1. Renee Thompson

      I’m so so sorry to hear this Lou Ann, but don’t give up!! There are so many opportunities in healthcare for nurses, sometimes beyond the acute care hospital setting, where nurses don’t eat each other. Keep looking until you find a good place…and you will!!

      1. Lou Ann Schisler

        Thanks for your response and comments. I feel now I’m not alone. Friends and family who don’t work as a nurse or who are not in the medical field, don’t understand or can grasp what you’re going through. I’ve been told you just need to try and get along with people. I’ve done nothing but that! Thanks for your support!

        1. Renee Thompson

          This is one of the reasons bad behavior continues! We’re told…that’s just the way it is…not okay! We can and need to do better 🙂

  4. I worked in a medical billing office and a former co-worker from my last employer (with a history of a restraining order) spread lies about me. I was followed around the building, including the bathroom, and HR and management not only allowed it, but participated in the harassment. I contacted the HR director and was ignored by her until the director realized she could not ignore me anymore. She gaslighted me, suggesting I look at my benefits for my paranoia. She tried to frame it as me needing to learn interaction and things got worse. The harassment would ebb and flow. We used to leave our keys on our desk, but one day I came in, and someone had been in my drawer and unable to close it. I think whoever it was was given permission, they just got caught. I was not in the company email list, finding our about all staff.meetings minutes beforehand. They hacked into my phone, which backfired for them each time they did it, but they still did it. They tried to infiltrate my social media and that of my family. Before they even got to know me, the lies had sunk in and they assumed the worst about me. Everything I did was met with suspicion.

    There was no logic and they just kept doing the same thing over and over again. It was like mass insanity and nothing was going to stop them. I realize that they just did not have the capacity to reconcile that what they were told was not what they were seeing. They managers and HR were in so deep and had lost so much control that I don’t think they knew what to do when they realized something was amiss. I do think they brought in outside help, but by then it was too late. It was end-stage and nothing was going to fix it. I kept to myself and said nothing to anyone because speaking up had worked so well before, and I hoped those in charge would step in. Luckily my department was eliminated on May 1, 2019 and I was freed. I knew I was going to lose my job due to an acquisition and even wrote it down in my journal in January of 2018. But the whole point is that I did not deserve to be treated that way, acquisition or not.

    Not one person seemed to think this was wrong. Not one person seemed to think something does not make sense. Not one person seemed interested in protecting me.

    I never signed the severance papers because I will not say they did not harass me. I have enough documentation for a book and that is what I plan to do. If they want to stop me, in addition to any financial compensation, I want three letters: one signed the CEO & President, one signed by the HR Director, and one signed by all the managers and administrators who could have protected me saying that a) I was a good employee and did nothing wrong, b) I was harassed, and c) and apology for allowing to coworkers to harass me and participating in the harassment themselves. A check, while justified, won’t do by itself. But since that won’t happen, I have my writing and I am.going to use it to tell my story.

    The moral of this story is that going to HR is not always the best and can backfire.

    1. Renee Thompson

      Oh no! Sounds like a horror story!! I’m still shocked at times by people’s behavior, however, that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to DOING something about it. I’m so glad you’re no longer in that situation, regardless of how it came to be. Thank you for sharing your story!

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