Tackling Workplace Bullying: Q&A Will Show the Way!

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Over the years, I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times by numerous people who want to help their readers (mostly nurses) learn more about how to stop workplace bullying.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that addressing disruptive behavior is important to you too! With this in mind I’d like to share some of those questions (and my subsequent answers, of course) with you today. 

Remember, workplace bullying happens because it can and it takes all of us to fix it. We can do so by speaking up, stepping up, and standing up for respect, kindness, and professionalism.

What got you interested in workplace bullying?

When I worked as a nurse executive, I spent a lot of time talking with nurses about how students and new nurses are supported. Many of the nurses I talked with shared horror stories of how they were treated by the other experienced nurses when they were students or when they were new. They shared stories about being eaten alive by the more experienced nurses and how they were treated like gum on someone’s shoe. Their stories reminded me of my own experiences of being bullied when I was a new nurse AND any time I changed roles as an experienced nurse. At one point, I caught myself saying, “Well, that’s just the way it is in nursing.”

Yes. I actually said that. But when I did, I had an out of body experience. I heard myself saying those dreadful words and in the moment, decided enough was enough. WHY oh why do we accept nurses eating each other as the norm?

[easy-tweet tweet=”Workplace bullying happens because it can and it takes all of us to fix it. Speak up, step up, & stand up!”]

That experience led me down the path to learn more about nurse-to-nurse bullying. What I found was that there was a lot of literature about what bullying looked like and why it occurred. However, there wasn’t a lot about how to stop it. That’s when I decided to go down the “rabbit hole” and get more involved in working with individuals and organizations to eliminate workplace bullying.

Why does workplace bullying take place?

Workplace bullying takes place because it can. First, we accept certain behaviors as the norm and fail to recognize inappropriate, bad behavior. We say things like, “That’s just the way it is” or, “Well, that’s just how SHE is. Don’t take it personal.”

Second, when employees are bullied, they don’t speak up. 40% of all targets don’t tell anyone they are being bullied. This silence occurs typically because of the fear of retaliation. Targets are afraid that if they speak up, the bully will find out and retaliate against them.

Third, leaders use silence as a strategy too. Nobody teaches them how to address the bad behavior of their employees. This is a huge problem, seeing as 85% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with the behaviors of their employees! So, the cycle of workplace bullying continues.

How would you define workplace bullying?

First, not everything is bullying and we do a disservice to nurses when we label all bad behavior as bullying. Even though I’ve written about this, talked about this, and created a few videos about this, I’m not confident people truly understand the difference between bullying and incivility. Keep in mind; both bullying and incivility are NOT okay. Both need to be addressed, but it’s important to understand the differences because the strategies to eliminate them are different.

For a behavior to be considered bullying, it has to include 3 things:

1. A Target

There HAS to be a target. This target can be a single person or group of people. For example, someone might make one new nurses life a living hell, but they’re nice to everyone else. Group targets can include the opposite shift (day nurse hates all night nurses), new nurses, or nurses who have a particular ethnic background.

2. Harmful

The behavior has to be harmful in some way. This harm can be to the target (I get diarrhea every time I see that I have to work with this person). Or harmful to a patient (a nurse who sets a nurse up for failure, affecting patient care).

3. Repeated

I do believe this is the most important element of bullying. The behavior can’t be just a one-time event (I scream at you during a code situation). The harmful behavior has to be repeated over time. Some experts say 6 months or more. I disagree. I would consider a behavior as bullying if it is repeated several times over the course of a week or so.

Does workplace bullying take place more publicly or privately?

Both. Some people who bully love an audience. They like to yell, criticize, or treat someone in a condescending manner in front of others. We tend to refer to these behaviors as overt. However, there are a lot of covert bullies too. These bullies either only treat people poorly behind closed doors or they’re nice to your face but are quick to stab you in the back when you turn around!

Do you see this occurring in all workplaces or especially with nurses?

Bullying is destructive, pervasive, and exists in every industry. However, there is a high prevalence of bullying in the nursing profession for several reasons. One reason is that we are a female dominated profession and women aren’t always that nice to each other. Another reason is because of the high stress environment nurses work in. When stressed, nurses tend to lash out at each other. A third reason is because of a general feeling of oppression. Nurses can’t say no to patient care and therefore, feel as though they don’t have a voice or control over their work. This also leads to high stress. In general, nurses aren’t taught good coping mechanisms and may resort to releasing stress and frustration in non-healthy ways.

What challenges are there for doctors or nurses who are new to a practice when it comes to interpersonal relationships?

Many times, new nurses and physicians face a hierarchy and may go through a bit of hazing by the experienced person. They may be treated poorly, given the worst assignments, or simply set up to fail. There tends to be a perceived power gradient with senior physicians and nurses who then use that perceived power to squash others.

How does bullying affect the workplace environment and work ethic?

We know that individuals pay the price for bullying with their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Organizations pay the price for bullying with their profits. Globally, organizations lose over $6 billion dollars per year due to bullying (in all industries). Ultimately, patients pay the price for bullying with their outcomes. Studies show that organizations with a high prevalence of bullying have worse patient outcomes.

How does bullying affect new nurse turnover?

I read a statistic once that said if a unit has more than a 10% turnover rate – bullying is a problem on that unit. Nurses stay or leave for two reasons:

  1. The relationship they have with their boss.
  2. Whether or not they feel that they fit in.

Bullying destroys both.

Once it's established that workplace bullying is present, how do you approach it?

I first recommend getting very clear about the behavior and how it is impacting the work. So many people complain that someone is “bullying” them, but it’s very difficult to address “bullying”. Getting clear on the behavior (“Jared called me an idiot in front of patients”) can provide the opportunity to address specific behavior.  Second, I recommend starting a documentation trail of bullying behavior.

Dates, times, locations, incidents, witnesses, etc. Any time you can include verbatim comments, be sure to do so. And always link a bad behavior to a patient safety concern or strategic goal violation. Third, confront. I write a lot about confronting techniques in my book and my other various anti-bullying programs. There are simple ways to confront and more complex ways. The key is to stop using silence as a strategy!

Are these techniques applicable to other work places? How is it specific to nurses?

Of course! Bullying is a human issue. If you have humans working in your organization, then you have the potential for a bullying problem. I specifically work with healthcare organizations and academic institutes to stop the cycle of bullying. However, the same principles apply to any industry.

Why is it important that practices address issues of workplace bullying?

When organizations ignore workplace bullying, they have high turnover rates, added costs, and ultimately, their patients will have worse outcomes. There is a movement right now to make bullying illegal in the workplace and some organizations are actually being sued if they don’t take action against complaints of bullying.

Is there a way to prevent workplace bullying from happening before it is present?

Yes! First, an organization has to set behavioral expectations immediately upon hire. Asking employees to sign a code of conduct or read the policy on behavior isn’t enough. Leaders have to engage in conversations about bullying versus professional behaviors with their employees.

Second, you have to provide skill development for your front-line managers to teach them how to hold their employees accountable for behaviors.

Third, the organization has to provide the resources employees need to create professional workplaces. This consists of ongoing training and education, robust policies that address workplace bullying, and a surveillance system to monitor behaviors.

Fourth, leaders need to hold EVERYONE accountable for professional behavior – even themselves.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Follow these 4 steps to prevent #bullying behavior before it’s a problem! #leadership”]

We are hemorrhaging really good nurses due to workplace bullying and incivility. That’s why I’ve devoted my career to this work. Through my online programs, consulting, products, and seminars, I am doing my part to stop the cycle of bullying in healthcare!

If your organization is one of the many in dire need of help with an ever-expanding workplace bullying problem please take the time to see how I can help. It’s never too late to do the right thing!

Workplace Bullying

Be kind. Take care. Stay connected.

Helping you cultivate a healthy happy workforce,

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