How to Catch a Professional Bully Nurse

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Peg is a legend. Not because of how great she is. Peg is a legend because of how HORRIFIC she is! Peg is a bully and everyone knows it. Her stories are legendary and are told by her victims around the campfires of the 21st century – Starbucks and wine bars.

Peg befriends new nurses until she gains their trust and then she stands back and watches them drown.
Peg deliberating withholds important details (like the patient needs to lie flat for 4 hours) when giving report to the nurses she secretly hates so that they make mistakes.

When in charge, Peg assigns the most acute and complex patients to the newest nurse on the unit while her “friends” get the easiest assignments.

Everyone knows Peg’s reputation, even administration. Yet Peg is still employed and terrorizing new and existing employees.
Because nobody can ever really catch Peg in the act.
Peg is a professional bully.

Peg and bullies like Peg are some of the biggest challenges nurse leaders face. These are the employees who they KNOW are bullying others but they can’t seem to catch them. They can’t find a clean way to fire them.  However, these folks pose the greatest risk to the organization.
Workplace bullying has been linked to intent to leave, poor patient outcomes and poor productivity.

How to Catch a Professional Bully

STEP 1: Join Forces

Schedule a meeting with human resources, the bully’s front line manager, clinical director, CNO and CMO.

  • Discuss the bully and ask these questions: What has been done so far? Is there anything documented in their file? Any disciplinary actions? Any written documentation, etc?
  • Review the policy on behaviors that undermine cultures of safety to get very clear on how her behavior is violating policy. (Read TJC Sentinel Alert)
  • Develop a strategic plan for how you will collect information and confront bullying acts.
  • Determine what you need to terminate the bully. Your human resource representative can help with this piece.

STEP 2:  Confront the Bully

When I ask leaders if anyone has actually had a conversation with the bully about behavior, the answer is either no or they don’t know.  Using silence as a strategy is one primary reason why professional bullies remain employed. It’s because when called into the HR office, they often can’t be held responsible if nobody sets the expectations.

  • Meet with the bully. Tell her that you KNOW she is behaving in ways that are compromising patient safety and a healthy workplace.
  • Look her in the eye and say, “This is what I expect from you starting today.” And then spell it out very clearly how you want her to behave and what will happen if she violates your expectations.
  • Get a commitment from her by saying this, “Can I count on you to meet these expectations?”

STEP 3: Remove Her Power

Why do we put people who we KNOW are destructive into power positions?

  • If she is a preceptor, stop letting her precept new nurses.
  • If she is in charge, take her out of that role.
  • If she is leading any committees, remove her.

Strip her from anything that gives her power.

STEP 4:  Build a Case

I know you think you can’t catch her. That she is so stealth – always hovering under the radar. However, SOMEBODY knows and witnesses what she’s doing – ALWAYS. You need to figure out who are the witnesses (they are usually the victims and support staff) and empower them to act.

  • Meet with folks individually who work with her. Ask for their help by documenting any incident involving a patient safety risk. I would even go so far as to admit that there have been reports of this person putting patients at risk by behaving in unethical ways and that you need their help so that you can protect patients (again, this will all be decided in your strategic meeting).
  • Gather any and all documentation about behaviors. It doesn’t matter if this documentation is anonymous, has a signature, is something verbalized to you, etc. Gather ALL EVIDENCE. Because what you’re doing is building a case. Just like a jury, they make decisions based on the preponderance of evidence.

STEP 5:  Fire the Bully

Stop letting one person have control over you and your organization. Focus all of your efforts on the steps above until you have enough evidence and then FIRE THE BULLY! Don’t wait until you have everything – remember, you’ve just built a case. Now do something with it!

A culture of silence must be replaced by a culture of safety. Disruptive behaviors happen because they can. It takes willing individuals and leaders to stop it.

If you know someone is putting patients at risk, professional bully or amateur, you have an ethical responsibility to the public to take action. After all, who is the public? We are!

Take care. Be kind. Stay connected.

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17 thoughts on “How to Catch a Professional Bully Nurse”

  1. Oh no! Peg sounds like a nightmare. I'm a pre-nursing student at the moment and my dream is to be nurse one day, but I hope I don't have to work with someone like Peg. Yikes!

  2. Hi Kat. There are many Pegs out there. However, the key is to STOP them. They don't belong in our profession. Getting rid of Pegs take commitment from individuals AND administration. I've been a nurse for 25 years and still LOVE it!!! Seriously. It's an amazing career. I hope you join us :-).


  3. This article and action plan can also apply a bullying supervisor. I have had one of those and ready felt trapped and stressed. This truly represent a patient safety hazard.

  4. Great comments. Bad behavior is bad behavior and doesn't belong in healthcare! Co-workers, supervisor, case manager, etc. We have to stop allowing these toxic humans infect the workplace. There are so many good people out there but they are getting squashed by the bullies.
    I'm so grateful that you all "get it". Now it's time to do something to stop the cycle of bullying. Enough is enough!

    Kind regards

  5. Great advice, Renee! I often rely on tactics taken from two books: Getting to Yes and Getting Past No, both products of the Harvard Law School Negotiation Project. They push very fair negotiating trying to serve the needs of all involved. They are aware of the bullies who try to run over people who play fair, and much of the content involves ways to force them to play nice. One tactic is the BATNA: Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. In a nutshell, it involves making the idea of going to war as unattractive as possible. We can play nice, OR we can go to war, and here's what it will be like…

    Your tips are helpful in that regard. Gather your forces, hone your arguments, make the idea of war with you frightening and dangerous. The hard part, of course, is putting such a package together without breaking laws or professional or ethical standards.

    I have often found it quite possible to sell people on playing nice, or if that fails, leaving me and mine alone entirely. It helps not only with bullies, but with all potentially ugly interactions. I see deeply mean people turn into model citizens in a heartbeat, surprisingly often, when they see a good reason to do so. My job is to find such reasons, and offer them discretely. Hurt pride is a very expensive thing that cause lots of unnecessary pain and woe and blows up many a settlement. Well worth avoiding in most cases!

    Thanks for the great post – Greg

  6. Great comments Greg! Thanks so much for recommending these books. I've just put them on my list. I agree about trying to get people to play nice. Even if they do for a while, they tend to resort back to their toxic ways.

  7. 15 years in, most of them management or administrative roles. I've never experienced anything like I did at my last management job, I hope to God I never go through that again! Powerless & unheard is an understatement. I did everything I should have seeking help & reaching out for patient safety and care, no complaints or gripes on my behalf. Took it right to the top, the right way. My forecast tragically came to full bloom not 3 months after.
    Nine months after declining a severence offer and unemployment ending, I found myself contemplating abandoning nursing all together. I even declined services from a very excited attorney. Job search was feeling pointless. Guilt by association outweighed accomplishments at warp speed.
    The good of this, my lesson? Self awareness. I was born to be a nurse. Try to stop me!
    New hire physical at 1 of the 3 top ranked care companies for a part time job in the am agenda tomorrow. Shooting for a second part time job at another place as well.
    Patient safety and care are in our hands. We are their advocates. It's not a club, it's not a game. Personal gain, loosing site and forgetting why we first followed the art is the problem!
    Nursing programs need to do a better job weeding out toxic people there for the wrong reasons and not worry so much about the letters based on writing our opions of another nurses theory following our name.

  8. Thanks so much for posting your experience. I'm so glad you decided not to let anyone take away your passion for nursing!!! Many try but we have to do something to stop people from treating other nurses (and humans) this way. We are bleeding good nurses!!!

    Warmest regards

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