How To Spot a Workplace Bully, Part One

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    Having the correct diagnosis for a workplace problem helps with finding the right solution. Labeling every conflict as bullying can lead to disciplinary overkill or its flip-side, a devaluation of the actual cases. At the same time, applying typical problem-solving and conflict resolution tools can put the target in harm's way. How then, do you identify a bully in the workplace?

    You go to the ED with chest pain. The medical team puts you on oxygen, draws blood for labs and gives you aspirin, Plavix and morphine. And then you get a battery of tests ranging from an EKG to a trip to the cath lab. Why? Because it's crucial to determine exactly what kind of “chest pain” has brought you in. Are you having an MI or non-life threatening angina? Is pain referring from your hot gall bladder? Or are your coronary arteries so blocked that you need immediate bypass surgery? Homing in on the correct diagnosis is an essential step toward deciding the proper treatment.

    In the same vein (pardon the pun), “a problem with someone at work” is also a non-specific diagnosis that needs further clarification. Is the other person lacking in social skills or stressed out for personal reasons and frequently acting prickly toward everyone? That might involve some counseling with their supervisor.

    Is your manager often joking inappropriately about your race, religion or ethnic background? HR needs to inform them that they could be fired and charged with workplace harassment if their behavior doesn't change immediately.

    Is your co-worker or boss taking credit for your ideas, denying you job perks that you're entitled to, threatening a poor evaluation if you don't pick up a lot of extra shifts, and lying about you to others on a regular basis? This could be a case of bullying.

    An incorrect or incomplete diagnosis greatly lessens the chances of finding the proper solution. Typical conflict resolution techniques don't work with bullies and they may make the situation worse. So how do you decide if you're dealing with a bully?

    Before we define bullying, let's take a closer look at what doesn't qualify.

    Workplace bullying isn't personality conflict. It isn't disagreement. As mentioned above (and in a previous article), it isn't being witchy, boorish or rude—a boss or a co-worker may be disagreeable but that characteristic alone does not a bully make.

    Although bullying is a particularly nasty kind of torment, it frequently operates outside the legal definition of workplace harassment, which is unwelcome speech or conduct directed toward members of a legally protected class (those of a particular race, sex, religion, ethnicity, age, etc.).

    Workplace bullying is an equal opportunity offender that tends to fly under the radar. But even though it can be more challenging to identify and eliminate than other forms of abuse, it's such a serious and debilitating problem that seventeen states are currently looking to address it through legislation, and others are likely to follow.

    So what is the definition?

    According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) bullying is:
    “ . . . mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize [his or her] job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully's personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation.”

    “The workplace bully abuses power, brings misery to his/her target and endeavors to steal the target's self-confidence,” says Ray Williams in Psychology Today. “Bullies often involve others, using many tactics such as blaming for errors, unreasonable work demands, insults, putdowns, stealing credit, threatening job loss, and discounting accomplishments.”

    In Time magazine, attorney Adam Cohen says that, “Recent brain-scan research has shown that bullies are wired differently. When they see a victim in pain, it triggers parts of their brain associated with pleasure.

    This “pleasure” may stem from the bully's perception that they have successfully defended their turf rather than from a true sadistic streak, but the inner workings matter little to their victims.

    On his website,, Dave Chapman says, “ . . . the workplace bully has self-serving goals with a complete lack of respect or caring for others, who he never considers as equals. And among these moral and intellectual inferiors, he feels free to use any means necessary to gain compliance.”

    Clearly, bullies mean business. Except that they disrupt business, provoke stress-related illness in their subordinates or co-workers, and create an atmosphere that imperils safety, sanity and productivity.

    Continued in How to Spot Workplace Bully, Part Two

    Bullying: The Other "B" Word

    How To Spot a Workplace Bully, Part Two
    Last edit by Joe V on Apr 18, '16
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  3. by   ebear
    I was bullied by a nurse in an O.R. Many years ago and had been certified in that field for years (>25). When I went into the breakroom for lunch, everybody got up en masse and walked out. Then I was told by my supv that non of the surgeons wanted me in their room! I was only 3 weeks in that hospital and had never even worked with many of the docs. This nurse was Definitely the instigator. I went to the manager and she said "Ebear, she has run off SO MANY great nurses!" I said, "Well, if you KNOW that, why do you allow it?" She just shrugged her shoulders and looked away. I wish the bullying subject was in effect by Joint Commission at that time! I turned in my badge and walked out. I had never before (or since) been treated like that. It was a small community hospital and I still cringe when I have to drive by that place!
  4. by   rn/writer
    Maybe scenarios like this one will have different endings if more employers take bullying seriously and train their upper echelons to identify it and deal with it effectively.

    If companies knew how much bullying costs them in the loss of good employees and productivity in general, they'd really want to change things. Maybe with more people talking about it, they'll wake up and smell the scorched coffee.

    One can hope.
    Last edit by rn/writer on Oct 12, '11
  5. by   RNSuzq1
    Because of all the great advice from Allnurses during NS & my early yrs as a Nurse, I knew I'd find some info. re: a current problem at work. Bingo - Workplace Bully, just what I was looking for. I've been a Charge Nurse on a busy Med/Surg/Peds floor for 5yrs. Thought about leaving several times, but my co-workers were great, so I stayed. Last yr we got our 1st Male Nurse on the floor. I was happy about it, Love working with men, they're usually easy going & don't gossip. He seemed like a nice guy, we all took the new grad under our wings, helped him out anyway we could. Only problem was, his Fiance also works on our floor, on another shift & has her head half-way up the Mgrs behind. Noticed that he'd go from one Nurses St. to the other, acting like he was being all chummy, while asking lots of personal questions. What he heard from one person, he'd go tell another. We learned quick that anything he heard us say on nights, quickly went to the girlfriend & to the boss - he's the biggest gossiper I've ever worked with.

    He's now doing some nights as Charge & when he does, his head doubles in size and he tries to push us around. The rest of my co-workers have tough-skin, yell back or just ignore him. I'm the floor softie, push-over - I'm nice, don't like confrontational people & don't fight with anyone. After all the help I've given him, he's decided to zero in on whimpy me & make me his target. For months, I've overheard little digs, rude comments & tried to ignore it. Last month I heard him totally humiliate an older Nurse with 35yrs exp, that just went through Breast Cancer. When I confronted him about it, told him it was cruel & unprofessional, that's when he got really mad & the bullying started, has even tried to turn my co-workers against me. The other night, for no apparent reason - he came back to my Nurses station, had me cornered, told me nobody liked working with me, I was a chronic complainer, everyone knew it & if I'd just be honest with myself, I'd realize it to. It just went on and on. I told him I was twice his age, it was insulting, he needed to stop & he just kept going. Then, he started talking about my Children. Things he's overheard me talking to others about raising teenagers (normal stuff we all go through). He said my Kids probably don't like me either.

    I was mortified, humiliated - told him he had no business talking about my kids & I'd be talking to the Mgr. He warned me, if I did that, if he saw with a drink at the NS, he'd write me up, 5 mins extra at dinner, write me up - basically make my life Hell. I was in tears by this time - went to talk to some of my co-workers, they saw the state I was in. All but 1 walked away. They said they knew what he was capable of and didn't want to get involved. Nothing like Fairweather Friends - Huh? Talked to my Mgr. the next morning (his girlfriends buddy) - got a blank stare, was told I had to have a Professional discussion with this idiot and work things out. I'm so worried about my job and having to face this nut again, my BP is now sky-high, I can't sleep & My Husband is Furious someone talked to me like that. What's my next step - What do I do?
  6. by   ebear
    rn/writer, after I finished a LOT of research, studied the stance of Joint Commish on this issue,,, and became certified in legal nursing, I sent the Director of HR a very professional letter with my legal business card attached and attached a copy of the article. Finished the letter with: "I hope that in the future you will see of how these events may be occuring not only in the O.R. but in other area of the hospitals as well. I heard nothing in reply (interesting in itself)

    Signed "Sincerely, Ebear, RN, CNOR, BCLNC"
  7. by   ebear
    PLEASE report this to your HR dept ASAP. You have witnesess. Copy your post to hand to them, too! JUST DO IT!!!
  8. by   CSARmedic
    I'm a 6'3" 200 lbs male that's been bullied many times in my 15 years in nursing ( I think my tormentors see my size as a sort of challenge). I'm very male (not gay) and have been in the Air Force since I was 17 so I'm a juicy target for a female bully. My biggest regret has been that I never stood up against them. I just got depressed and eventually moved on to another job. You're going to have to stand up to the bastard. Go toe to toe with him and call him out. In public so there are other witnesses and go to HR now to validate your allegations. It sounds like you'll lose your job (or your self respect) if you don't. But if you don't you'll probably lose your job anyway so what do you have to lose? Nurses are a dime a dozen so the easy solution is to just fire the trouble maker (you) so what do you have to lose?
    Please let me know how it works out.
  9. by   LockportRN
    RnSuzq1, I hope that you take the time to write down everything that occurred. Then write down as many events of bullying that you can remember with dates and times as well as te names of all that were present, and go higher than your floor manager. This is ridiculous.

    At one time, we also had a male DON. At first we were all thrilled with this, but his bullying got so out of hand that it was finally brought to the Administers attention. She called him in for a meeting and the unbelievable happened. This bully actually returned to our floor and posted a $200 reward to the person that would tell him who turned him into the Administrator. Really this did happen, you just can't make this stuff up. The end result was that he did not work after that day.
  10. by   ebear
    Copy this post and make an appt with HR ASAP! They are well aware of Joint Commission's mandates. Research bullying in the workplace ...there are MANY that apply to your situation. GO FOR IT!, Suzq1!
  11. by   aloevera
    I feel your pain..........I am also the "nice one" that doesn't like confrontation..........

    In any other circumstance, I would suggest you going further up the ladder.....BUT the fact that the bully has a girlfriend that is so tight with the manager makes your situation quite difficult.

    You said you have thought about leaving......why? sounds like you stayed for your "great coworkers"......well....

    How great are they now? It may be time to look elsewhere.......for your sanity.........

    Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the oil......BUT sometimes it just falls off the wagon..........only you can decide if your job is worth the sounds like he is insane, no respect for anyone..........I would tell him and the manager off after I have found another position !!! Talk about a hostile work environment............This is awful...........
  12. by   greytRNtobe
    My first and last job in nursing ended because of bullying. They say 25 percent of nurses leave nursing after their first job. I was one and there have been others who have left after me. There are more to come in the future because HR refuses to see the problem.
  13. by   rn/writer
    I was mortified, humiliated - told him he had no business talking about my kids & I'd be talking to the Mgr. He warned me, if I did that, if he saw with a drink at the NS, he'd write me up, 5 mins extra at dinner, write me up - basically make my life Hell. I was in tears by this time - went to talk to some of my co-workers, they saw the state I was in. All but 1 walked away. They said they knew what he was capable of and didn't want to get involved. Nothing like Fairweather Friends - Huh? Talked to my Mgr. the next morning (his girlfriends buddy) - got a blank stare, was told I had to have a Professional discussion with this idiot and work things out. I'm so worried about my job and having to face this nut again, my BP is now sky-high, I can't sleep & My Husband is Furious someone talked to me like that. What's my next step - What do I do?
    This is spooky. You will find yourself in Part Three of this article. I'm posting Part Two today and Part Three will show up on Friday. In the meantime, I will post the resources from the end of Part Three now.


    Read what these resources have to say, then print out relevant sections and take them to HR. It's highly inappropriate for a boyfriend and girlfriend to be working the same unit for just the reasons you've mentioned.

    Show the material to your co-workers, and explain to them that if you go, one of them will be in the cross hairs next time. Document each instance of bullying. If your state allows this, keep a voice-activated tape recorder in one of your pockets and let him ramble away with his threats.

    Be professional but distant. Keep a pleasant but flat affect with this guy, even if that means going to the bathroom and having a good cry during your shift. Do NOT agree to meet with him and the manager unless you are allowed to have someone who supports you present to witness what goes on. If your state allows, use that voice-activated tape recorder to make a record of what is said. You might even want to have someone from HR (if you trust that they're not buddies with either the manager, the guy or the girlfriend) in any meeting. If you can avoid meeting with the manager, do that. Whatever you do, don't agree to speak with the bully one-on-one.

    Listen to your gut. Keep a journal. Keep track of any physical symptoms you have. Contact the BON and the department of labor for your state and see if they have any information about or understanding of workplace bullying.

    I wish you the best.
    Last edit by rn/writer on Oct 13, '11
  14. by   Seasoned
    WOW! It seems to be getting worse for nurses in relation to bullying. But it really is more of us talking about it.

    Bottom line it is very real and out of control. So fight or flight? Weigh options of which has priority for "you". Do you want to be the Martin Luther King and fight using HR and formal grievances. OR Is the job itself not worth the aggravation and make plans to more on?

    Choice 1: Fight - well be prepared for reprecussions in the form of revenge by bullying leaders. Know that all, yes all, managers know the bullying staff. And they are bullies for allowing it. Especially if your manager is the bully you have to reach to the HR EEOC level or you are wasting your fight. It's got to be in that big way or your bullying problem will escalate faster than you know. The thing thatgets that bully in the long run is a negative personnel paper trail. Know it may not happen in your time there but it ALWAYS ALWAYS happens. So your piece of the fight helps the next victum and so on, and so on...! ("I may not get there with you...MLK)

    Choice 2: Flight - Well who needs that aggravation especially if home life is not great. No one blames you get out! Do travel nursing if nothing is open in your field elsewhere. It's a great feeling to leave on your own terms. Keep your self-estem up to par. And realize work-life elsewhere is good! Just be smart about it. Don't leave in a huff. Plan it! Work other places per diem to test the waters at a new place. Stay part time and perdiem at more than one place versus full time at one place. It's wonderful you fly just below the sh_t politics and they are always glad to see you. The negative politics is mostly full time versus full time folks. And ALWAYS give a strong exit interview to HR. Again helping the paper trail that will be the bully's downfall in the long run. The same comments from different folks works slower but just as good as a petition or class action movement. Please contact the ANA and ask them to put it on their agenda for a national initiative. Go the website and email them. Report the hospital just in case they are planning to apply for a Magnet status. Nurses leaving because of poor treatment impacts greatly on jeopardizing that.

    This is you feeling good about your career choice not the place you chose to work! Nursing is awesome !!! It'll take you whereever you want to go. So use it and find your comfort zone!!!!