What to do if the bully is your boss? 5 steps for nurses

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Nurse bullying and incivility are pervasive, destructive and don’t belong in a profession that is supposed to be caring and compassionate. To help nurses protect and bully-proof themselves, I conduct workshops on bullying. My workshops are designed to help academic organizations who are trying to create cultures of civility and respect among faculty and student populations; hospitals who are trying to enforce a “zero tolerance” for bullying (hint – just having a policy doesn’t work), and individuals who feel like they are swimming upstream in a sea of bullies. 

During my workshops I have met some of the most wonderful, caring human beings who are trying to make a difference. It breaks my heart to hear their stories of bullying.  I feel even worse when I get asked this question, “What do I do if the bully is my boss?” Really? Unfortunately, some of the most horrific examples of bullying I’ve heard involve nursing leaders.
Does this sound familiar to you? I hope not, but if it does, there is hope. There are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from the bully-boss. Keep in mind, these are just highlights!
1.     Recognize the behavior as bullying:  It always shocks me when I learn that some nurses don’t even realize they are being bullied. They just get used to the behavior and get numb to it. Just like the famous frog in a pot of boiling water example (if you put a frog in boiling water, he will jump out-but if you put the frog in when the water is cool and slowly heat the water to boiling, the frog doesn’t notice and boils to death), nurses get numb to the behavior and think it’s normal.
Some examples of bullying boss behavior:  unfair schedule, openly criticizing and yelling in front of others, showing favoritism to certain nurses, not being approachable, not being available to staff, etc.
2.     Speak up:  You may not be comfortable speaking up to your boss about the fact that you think he or is she is a bully, but you do need to tell someone.  Is there an educator you can confide in? What about a Clinical Nurse Specialist or APN? Can you talk to someone in your professional nursing organization (if you belong to one)?  Is there an experienced nurse who you can talk to? The point is this – TELL SOMEONE!!!!  Telling another person might provide the support and objectivity you need to address it.
3.     Document, document, and document:  Keep a journal with you at all times. Record specifics regarding behaviors you’ve experienced. Be objective and include date, time, who was involved and any other details that will support you.
4.     Confront your boss: For most, this is the scariest step. However, getting your boss to stop bullying you does require that you address it in some way.
If you are comfortable, and think that you have a chance of improving your relationship, ask to meet with your boss. Have a conversation about your documented observations. You may want to start the conversation like this: “I’d like to have a conversation with you about our working relationship but you need to know that I’m uncomfortable having it. The relationship I have with you, as my boss, is important to me. Lately, I’ve noticed….” and then give specific examples.
If you are NOT comfortable or think your boss is a queen bully-boss, consider either meeting with his or her boss, or filing a formal complaint with the Human Resource department. Remember, complaining is not the same as filing a formal complaint.
Consider this:  Confronting might not work, but NOT confronting never works.
5.     Consider leaving:  Sometimes, the bully-boss has been in his or her role for so long that some organizations just accept the behavior (for many reasons). If you’ve recognized you’re being bullied, you’ve told somebody, tried to address it but the behavior isn’t getting any better or worse – your boss is retaliating, consider leaving.  If you’ve done steps 1 – 4 or if you think the problem is so bad that you can’t even imagine step 4, then you’ve earned your right to leave!
Ultimately, you deserve to work in a nurturing and supportive environment – free from the bullies, especially the bully bosses.
I really hope these tips help you to succeed and feel good about the work you do.

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

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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 by clicking here.

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12 thoughts on “What to do if the bully is your boss? 5 steps for nurses”

  1. Great post. I can see that happening so easily in the workplace. I am one to tell another nurse, respectively of course, what they need to do and what not. I will love to read your book. I encountered a lot of lateral violence as a STUDENT doing my preceptorship. It was the worst experience and at the same time, has made me stronger. After that lateral violence became a very important topic to me. Thanks.

  2. Renee, I love reading the insightful blogs and book "Do No Harm" as it gives me hope. I find it interesting about bosses being bullies and I am in that situation currently. I have had many demands on me and have noticed not all others do. I have been receiving disciplines more often infact for the last 4 years I have had something from too many absences to not being on time to meetings or assumed late to work. Now I am expected to keep my door open, be visible in the department between 7:30-8:30am, keep my calendar current of all appointments (personal and work), emails are too long not using bulletins or run on sentences. Have I been disciplined for my work and the content of what I do, no in fact it is always meets expectations or above by peers which she cannot argue. I did have a heart to heart and I cannot get through it without crying as it hurts not to be seen as a good employee. She refers to it as not a high performer. Thanks for your work in this area and would love to have you come speak to our hospital, which is really the other point I need to make. I cannot get to your "Now booking on-site workshops) to check your availability so I can forward to my colleagues that plan nurse week or another event we plan. Thanks for your work in this area.

  3. Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment. I'm so sorry you are going through this. It does look like you are a target. If you're currently not doing this, one thing you could do is to start a documentation trail. Just get a simple notebook and start documenting every time you believe you're being treated differently. Just the facts – dates, times, objective information. That way, if you are able to file a formal complaint, you will be prepared.

    I'll be sending flyers out to organizations regarding my onsite seminars. If you message me with the name of your organization, I'll make sure to send them one!

    Warmest regards

  4. My Boss was my Bully and had me fired while a new nurse just starting. The Organization in my State is a Monopoly and owns all hospitals (about 9) where I live so I am red-flagged and cannot get employment. I went to 2 weeks of formal classes and when I got put on floor the nurse preceptors would not even give me password to get into computers which is how to read a patients chart. Then nurse supervisor made a comment to me, "Did you take your medicine today>" because after hired, we had to take a employee physical and had to list medication and vitamins we take on physical with Human Resources which I was confirmed that everything is kept CONFIDENTIAL under HIPPA. It was a RN Supervisor that Bullied me and kept pulling me off floor so I could not be available to work and other RNs were getting angry and the Nurse Supervisor I said this to because she had me take 3 breaks, making the others jealous, so she told me, "Don't worry about it, I am your Supervisor and you won't get in trouble" however this was reported to the Dir. of Nursing on Floor another day and I was called in office and fired. I was not in Union yet as this Membership began after 90 days of Probation. I never got there because of the Nurse Bullying and I was escorted out with Security and told never to try to work again at another hospital in my area since this Monopoly now has me red flagged. I talked to a Lawyer who stated in NYS the employer could fire you if they did not like your hair…for any reason. So no Atty will help me. I sent a complaint to EEOC and they did nothing except after years of trying to find out why I was fired finally told me a lame excuse, "I could not keep up with Production" which was not true because they would not even let me do anything on floor, such as pass out med's or do treatments. No one wanted to introduce me to anything as I could not even get into computer to read charts to even begin to attend to clients. They refused to let me not work on clients due to taking medication to sleep at night which is taken at night and this was supposed to be kept confidential in Human Resource Office but was not but I cannot prove it. My grades were 3.7 GPA in Nursing and passed my State Boards 1st time which is all based on judgment. I have been so discouraged by this and do not know where to work since this Organization in NYS is a monopoly and owns 9 hospitals and red-flagged me from applying again. What do I do? I feel like my career in Nursing is Ruined. I have an RN, BSN and have looked elsewhere but everyone wants Med/Surg and I cannot get current experience in it without working in one of these hospitals. I took a Refresher Course at the only Hos. in area that has one but they also want nurses that have had a lot of Med.Surg in their life or they won't make it easy to get this Refresher Course either with in itself will run down your self-esteem as a RN. It seems like older RN's do not want to ever help the newer RN's to get their hands-on experience which is what happened to me. RN's tend to single you out and will not help you get your hands on experience. Even the Nursing Teachers only pick students that are LPN's or are part of the clique in college. What should I do to get my experience? I would like to go into Nurse Educator in Wellness or Dialysis?

  5. Oh my. I'm so so sorry you've been targeted this way. What you describe is some of the worst bullying I've heard. I bet you're not alone and that there are other nurses who they've bullied out of a job.

    Okay, although you went through a horrific experience, the goal is to get you back into nursing. A few considerations – have you tried to secure a position other than acute care? Try a skilled nursing facility, clinic, physician practice, etc. Although some of these places want you to have experience, some will hire "new" nurses. You say this hospital is a system and monopoly. I live in an area that has the same but there are other hospitals. I'm sure you considered applying to them but if it's been a while, go back.

    The key for you is to not let this experience define your nursing career. You want to be a nurse!! Don't let anyone stop you. Keep trying until you succeed!

    Air hug to you. Don't give up. We don't all eat our young!

  6. Desr anonymous a I am saddened to hear of your experience. It was an awful way to be treated by anyone, let alone the caring profession. This is the focus of my PhD. In my role in the UK I support students who have been treated unfairly to ensure they recover from the trauma and do not give up their future. Please seek support of professional services and look for a place of work where they have a very different culture. Please do not give up. This is totally unacceptable and these people should be managed. D.

  7. Pingback: 5 Things I’ve Learned About Nurse Bullies - RTConnections

  8. Pingback: Bully Bosses: A New Nurses’ Nightmare - RTConnections

  9. I love your articles, but I want to make it known IT IS NOT JUST IN NURSING!!!!!! I’m in pharmacy and pharmacists treat technicians like #$%@#$% and get away with it.

    1. You are so so right!! I’ve actually expanded my reach beyond nursing because if you have humans working in your healthcare organization, you have bad behavior. It’s not one of us…it’s all of us. Thank you!

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