Let’s Get Clear: What Bullying Is Not

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“My manager is a bully!”

Gina screamed when she exploded into the Human Resource office. “She wrote me up for calling off and I’m sick of her bullying me! YOU need to do something about her!”

Is Gina’s boss a bully?

Here’s the deal. Not everything is bullying. When we label EVERYTHING as bullying, we really do a disservice to true bullying. So, let’s get very clear about what bullying is and what it is NOT!



  • The manager holding staff accountable for performance, behavior, etc.

Many nurses complain that their boss is bullying them because they were put on corrective action for not following policy, not coming into work on time, calling off too many times, not giving medications, telling a coworker to “kiss my **s”, etc. This is NOT bullying! This is about being held accountable for your nursing practice.

  • The instructor holding students accountable for performance, behavior, etc.

Many student nurses reach out to me complaining that their instructor is bullying them because they were given a bad grade or given an “unsafe” during clinical.  Again, this is NOT bullying. Perhaps the instructor is just holding his/her students accountable to a higher standard of care. Not everybody should be a nurse!

  • Conflict and/or expressing a different opinion

Just because you have conflict or disagree with a coworker or your boss, doesn’t mean either of you are bullies. Conflict is different. Conflict is NOT bullying.

Let’s face it. Nurses work in stressful environments FILLED with unpredictability and complexity. And, we are not always on our best behavior. I challenge any one of you to claim that you’ve NEVER done or said anything unprofessional at work when under stress. It’s a human thing. However, we are not all bullies!


  • There has to be a target
  • The behavior has to be harmful
  • The behavior has to repeat over time

Now. I know what you’re thinking.  There are bully bosses, bully instructors, people who handle conflict like a terrorist, and people who freak out if your opinion is different than there’s (have you watched the banter on Facebook re: political election??). Yes. This DOES exist but we have to be very clear about using the term “bully” or “bullying”.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with others if we are ever going to eliminate true bullying from the nursing profession.

In Gina’s case, she failed to comply with the expectations of the job. Gina had called off 6 times in the last 3 months, leaving her coworkers short staffed. Their policy clearly stated that after the 3rd call off within 3 months, the employee should receive corrective action in the formal of a written warning. Gina’s boss was just following the policy and holding Gina accountable.

The next time you think someone is bullying you, stop and ask yourself these questions:
  1. Is this person just holding me accountable for my performance or behavior?
  2. Is this just conflict or a difference of opinion?
  3. Is this person targeting me?
  4. Is the behavior harmful towards me?
  5. Is the behavior repeated over time?
Let’s all get clear on bullying behavior, versus everything else.

Once we do, we can focus our efforts on stopping the cycle of nurse bullying. WHICH, has NO place in a profession dedicated to caring and compassion.

Thanks so much for reading. Take care and stay connected!

Renee Thompson


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Dr. Renee Thompson works with healthcare organizations that want to overcome the leadership and clinical challenges their people face every day. If you’d like to find out more about her programs, please visit her website

Contact Renee today at to bring her to your organization to talk about ending the cycle of nurse bullying.

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7 thoughts on “Let’s Get Clear: What Bullying Is Not”

  1. Keith Riggs, RN, BSN

    Thirty-five years ago, a young, aspiring man, with desire and substantive experience in healthcare, actively working as a para-professional in critical care, and in his senior year of a premier BSN program with very good grades was rolled out and forbidden from registering for his last semester of classes. There was no explanation other than, “because we can”. To continue, it would have required matriculating to another institution for a full two years. It was unforgiveable and broke my heart.

    Never an apology, no one ever extended a hand to help, and the action was devoid of what nursing is and should be. There was no accountability for the guilty parties or school, a blind eye. After devoting a career to medical case management, at 60 years of age, I did get a nursing license. Bullying is still very real. Frequently a warm, compassionate gentle soul will be pushed by the profession, for a variety of reasons usually related to the individuals involved. It is sad . . . but true.

    In my experience when bullying is perpetuated, if the target individual is strong enough, secure, knowledgeable, and able handle the bullying, the methods utilized become more diabolical and sorted with time, in an effort dominate the target. Typically it is the caring and compassion in heart of a true nurse that motivates the bullying behavior. A true nurse leads with the heart, it is an art, something a bully will never truly understand.

    Thanks for the pulpit, from the heart.

    1. Dearest Keith. I am so so sorry you experienced this. However, it’s because of amazing nurses like you that I do what I do. We can no longer afford to eat our young, or our old. Our profession is at the tipping point and we need to step up and stop allowing the cruelty in nursing. Sending you big air hugs!!!

  2. Anjie Vickers

    I have been a nurse leader in 4 different departments which started with a culture that had bullying within them. It took several years to transform the culture, but it really makes a difference! The first unit was recognized with the Hallmark of a Healthy Work Environment. Another unit is now leading system with patient experience. It starts with leadership.

    1. Renee Thompson

      Hi Anjie. Love this!! You are so right – a culture is determined by the leader! And, it does take time to transform a culture and it can be done! Thank you for taking the time to comment. Congratulations on your recognition!

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