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3 Common Landmines to Avoid When You Confront Bullying Behavior

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Confront bullying behaviorThere is an epidemic of bullying and incivility in healthcare that not only affects morale and turnover, but it also affects patient outcomes. One of the reasons that bullying and incivility continue is because leaders do not always know how to confront bullying behavior, especially when they don’t actually witness it. Therefore, they often do what’s comfortable – they do nothing or worse, they step on a landmine when they attempt to confront their employee, further reinforcing turning a blind eye.

Sandie knew her unit clerk, Tim, cursed like a sailor, and would yell, criticize, and argue with employees while sitting at the centralized workstation, especially the ones he didn’t like. New employees were afraid of him and the experienced employees either did workarounds or went out of their way to be nice to him so that they didn’t end up on the receiving end of his wrath. Even the providers tip-toed around Tim.

The problem is, Tim, never behaved this way around Sandie. He was always polite and respectful and of course, NEVER cursed in front of Sandie. But Sandie received dozens of complaints about Tim’s behavior over the last year and didn’t know what to do.

How do you confront bullying behavior you don’t actually witness?

Just because you don’t actually witness an employee’s bad behavior doesn’t mean you can’t confront them. The key is to follow these steps:

First step

Ask yourself: Do I believe it to be true? Even though your employee may have never behaved unprofessionally in front of you, DO YOU BELIEVE they act unprofessionally when you’re not around? If so, continue onto the second step.

Second step

Find out what specific behaviors this person is doing. If your employee is cursing, what curse words is he using? The “F” bomb, “S” bomb, “B” bomb, etc. When he yells, what does he do? Does he stand up, point his finger, throw things, etc.? Get crystal clear exactly what behaviors are happening.

This way, when you confront him, he’ll know you are serious and that you are not just making things up.

Third step

Schedule time with the employee, in your office or other private area and confront his behavior. Name the behavior by saying this…

“It’s been brought to my attention on numerous occasions that you curse – say the F word/B word, etc., yell, throw your clipboard on the counter, etc.”

For example, it’s better to say, “say the F word and throw your clipboard” than, “act unprofessionally.” The more specific you can be, the better.

Naming the behavior relies on your ability to identify the behavior objectively because some employees may not realize that there is anything wrong with the way they are behaving.

Especially if you’ve never done this before, I want to warn you. There are a few landmines waiting for you. Luckily, I know where they are and how you can avoid them.

Landmine #1 – The Bamboozler

Your employee will probably get defensive, especially if they don’t act that way in front of you.  They may say, “Who told you? They’re lying. Well, did you ever see me do this? How could you think this about me…” on and on.

What happens if you’re not careful is that you start second-guessing yourself. Well, am I really sure? Could I be wrong?

If you notice you’re going down that path, stop and think, “They’re trying to bamboozle me!”

Say this BEFORE your employee has a chance to bamboozle you…

“I’ve never seen you behave this way, but I believe it to be true.”

It will totally stop them from bamboozling you!

Landmine #2 – The Distractor

The other landmine you have to watch out for is when they distract you with a litany of questions similar to an interrogation!  “Who told you, when did they tell you, where were you standing when they told you, what did they have for breakfast when they told you…” on and on. This is just an attempt to distract you. Don’t take the bait.

Say this if this happens…

“Who told me isn’t important to me right now. What’s important is your behavior and how it impacts…”

Landmine #3 – The Tattletale

Now, if you’ve been dealing with someone who has been behaving badly for decades, consult your director and someone from human resources before having this conversation. Why? Because in many cases, as soon as you have your counseling session, that employee will run straight to HR and file a complaint against you.

And, whoever gets to HR first is believed. It’s a human thing.

When my kids were young and would get into a fight, whoever got to me first, “Katie started it…” I had the tendency to believe more, even if Courtney started the fight.

Here is a human behavior insight – Any time you have two people who, let’s just say, see the exact same situation differently, whoever gets to mom or dad first wins.

So, make sure YOU give your HR representative a heads up BEFORE you confront bullying behavior with someone who has been a problem for a while.

Confronting bullying behavior is hard enough and even harder when leaders don’t actually witness the bad behavior. So, I get it – it’s easy just to ignore it. But not anymore! With these steps and a strategy to avoid the landmines, you can confidently confront bullying behavior in your department.

Together, we can make healthcare a better place!


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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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