How to Identify Low-Level Bullying Behavior

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Bullying Behavior


Maggie was warned about Karen when she started her new job on a cardio step-down unit. Karen had worked on the unit for decades and had a strong reputation as the queen bully. Everyone was afraid of her, even the manager.

Maggie up to now had successfully steered clear of Karen, but today, she found herself alone with her in the break room. It wasn’t long before Karen honed in on Maggie. She walked right over to where she sat, leaned over her and said, “So you’re the new girl. I heard you came from Medsurg. All Medsurg nurses are idiots.” Without waiting for a response, Karen laughed as she walked away.

Maggie was left speechless.

Bullying is no small issue. Among nurses, the incidence runs rampant. In fact, in a recent Australian survey, from WA, Rose Chapman and colleagues found that “92% of nurses said they had been verbally abused, 69% were threatened, and 52% had been physically assaulted.”

When small acts of disruptive or aggressive behaviors go unchallenged, bullies gain a heightened sense of power. This power leads to more and more acts of aggression to the point where bullies feel untouchable, and the aggression often escalates if left unchecked.

So what do you do when your up against a bully – be it a co-worker, or boss in the workplace?


Bullying is psychological violence that affects your mental well-being and undermines your physical safety. Learn to recognize and identify bad behaviors and actions to know what to do if a bully targets you.

Behavior – Occasionally, bully behavior comes across as subtle, to the point where you may even ask yourself whether it’s all in your head, but more often than not, bullying behaviors are overt. Spend some time observing the bully’s behavior. Some key behaviors are hard to miss:

• Criticizes work in front of others.
• Makes insults, put downs, or threats of job loss.
• Downplays or denies others’ accomplishments.
• Yells and screams at target in front of others.

If you’re uncertain whether someone’s behavior can be considered bullying, ask yourself, “Does this person’s or group’s behavior thwart my productivity and authority?” If the answer is “yes,” you’re likely a target. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, a bully’s behavior “hurts, hu-miliates, or harms another person physically or emotionally.” Bottom line: If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s worth mentioning.

Actions – Next ask yourself if what he or she does can be perceived as inappropriate? In my book. ‘“Do No Harm.” Applies to Nurses Too!’ I offer valuable, concrete examples of how to recognize and label bullying. If you can pinpoint someone’s distinct inappropriate actions and give them a name, you can communicate your concerns with greater clarity, to more effectively to stop the assaults.


The first step in taking action when bad behavior escalates to bullying is to ask for help. Only half of all bullying occurs in front of people. Confide in a friend about what’s happening, or tell someone at work for support. Your best case scenario is to relay the matter to your boss, but if your boss is the bully, go through the chain of command until you get results.

Because 40 % of all bullying targets don’t tell anyone about their conflict, many unfortunate cases go unresolved. Don’t be a contributor to the statistics. Telling someone about your experiences will ease your inner tension, and take you one step closer to peace.


The #1 reason why nurses don’t confront disruptive behavior is due to lack of assertiveness skills. That said, standing up to a bully can feel stressful and scary, especially when that person finds enjoyment in fighting back. However, there’s hope for your situation, and actions you can take to handle yourself if you get bullied again.

• Read Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson for learning effective communication strategies to navigate tense issues.
• Read my book ‘Do No Harm’ Applies to Nurses Too! Strategies to protect and bully-proof yourself at work. You will find an arsenal of answers that relate specifically address concerns unique to nursing.
• Sign up for workshops and seminars that will arm you with the necessary strategies to stop bullies in their tracks.
If you think you can keep quiet and tolerate workplace bullying, consider these important facts:
• Workplace bullying has been linked to intent to leave, poor patient outcomes and poor productivity. In fact, according to Nursing Solutions Incorporated, 81% of nurses who leave an organization cite peer and nurse manager relations as cause for leaving.
• When workplace bullying goes unaddressed, it often leads to violence.

In the case of Maggie, because her supervisor was aware of the situation, taking steps forward, with her boss and co-workers at her side represents power in numbers, but remember, workplace bullying is never okay. If you feel alone, or if you or a co-worker are in a difficult dynamic, and are the target of bullying, it’s your responsibility to yourself and those around you to take action against the issue. Your voice could be the one that facilitates change, initiates an effective workplace bullying policy, and creates a positive work environment for yourself and others.

Renee ThompsonThanks so much for reading. Take care and stay connected!d

If you like this post, I recommend the following:
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3. Sign up to receive my latest updates and other resources via my website.

If you are a student or new nurse and want help to bully-proof yourself at work, make sure you check out my new Nurse Bully-Proofing Online Program.

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The Healthy Workforce Institute is the global leader in addressing disruptive behavior in healthcare. Through our cadre of services, we provide the strategies, skills, and solutions to address any incidences of disruptive behaviors that show up in healthcare.

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