Respect and Dignity: A Nurses Guide to Bullying in Nursing

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Bullying in nursing isn’t a new phenomenon. Nurses experience it in alarming numbers whether they’re new to the profession or the job. It happens to young and old nurses alike.

My Nurse Bullying Experience

Lateral violence is a soapbox of mine here. It is the reason why I started this blog in the first place. I was severely bullied by an experience LPN on my nursing unit.

This nurse sought to destroy every ounce of confidence I had along with my professional reputation. As a new nurse that is struggling to maintain an ounce of confidence, it’s absolutely devastating for a fellow nurse to actively work to take it away.

I have been called a liar, incompetent, and made to look a fool. I was bullied at work during the most difficult point in my young life. During my first year as a nurse, I broke my leg, got married, became pregnant, lost my mother suddenly to a pulmonary embolism, suffered postpartum depression. A single one of these things is a stressful addition to your life. I dealt with them all in span of about 10 months while being massively bullied.

Every day I had to make the best of the situation while the other nurses refused to help me or my patients. This meant that my patients had to suffer along with me. Unlike many new nurses, I did speak up, and often. Yet for fear for the loss of my job and the livelihood of my family, I kept continuing to go to an unsafe and hostile work environment in the hopes that eventually, somehow, it would stop.

Researching Lateral Violence

I spent hours upon hours researching the topic of bullying in nursing (academically referred to as lateral violence). I feel like this article is on the most well written I have ever seen on the subject:

A Matter of Respect and Dignity: Bullying in the Nursing Profession

It is authored by Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS

An excerpt, and the part that most hit home:

“Manifestations of Bullying

Bullying takes many forms — some blatant, some less so. Nurses who have researched this problem have collated an extensive list of behaviors that represent bullying, including the following[4,5,14-16]:

  • Refusing to speak to a colleague, being curt, giving the “silent treatment,” or withholding information (setting someone up to fail);
  • Unwarranted or invalid criticism, excessively monitoring another’s work;
  • Physical or verbal innuendo or abuse, foul language/swearing;
  • Raising one’s voice, shouting at or humiliating someone;
  • Treating someone differently from the rest of the group, social isolation;
  • Asking inappropriate and/or excessive questions about personal matters or teasing about personal issues;
  • Gossiping, spreading rumors, assigning denigrating nicknames;
  • Inappropriately exempting staff from responsibilities or assigning low-skilled work;
  • Blaming someone without factual justification;
  • Allocating unrealistic workloads and not supporting a colleague;
  • Being condescending or patronizing;
  • Taking credit for another person’s work without acknowledging his or her contribution or blocking career pathways and other work opportunities;
  • Publicly making derogatory comments about staff members or their work, including use of body language (eye rolling, dismissive behavior), sarcasm, ridicule; making someone the target of practical jokes; and
  • Impatience with questions; refusal to answer questions.” ( Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS, A Matter of Respect and Dignity: Bullying in the Nursing Profession, via Medscape Nurses)

and the related discussion forum.

It is viewable on MedScape Nurses. I do believe you have to have an account to view the article, but it is worth it for this an many other usual articles I have seen. And I know I should be beaten with a stick for not putting that there reference in APA format, but it does the job, and I’m not being graded on this here blog (that I know of).image
What’s pathetic is that this is fresh article, published 9/30/2010 and it has already received over 100 comments related to bullying and even people stating they’ve been fired as the result of being a target of bullying.
This is sad.
We have to stop this.
For as a profession we cannot hope to advance without fixing our problems internally first. The fact that “Nurses Eat Their Young” has become a common phrase, is absurd and despicable. Why do we allow this to continue? What worse image of nursing does one need than of the new recruits being thrown the wolves?… other than maybe my odd rendition of nurses as birds being eaten, I think that it’s a sign to lay off the twitter; but,I digress. I cannot think of many.
Remember, that young nurse, with her fresh set of unpolished skills, know-it-all attitude, and desire to prove him/herself may very well take care of you one day. Don’t you want to know that they were embraced by their colleges, taught to excel and encouraged to be the best nurse they could be. Don’t you want to know that your legacy as a nurse will continue on through their care? Don’t you already know that they look to you for guidance and strength and a few simple words of encouragement can make the difference for them.
Don’t forget that you were in their shoes once. You were a new nurse, and you may very well be new in another setting at some point in your career. Ask yourself, how do you want to be welcomed?
We have the power to change this, and it’s easily done.
Nurses, be aware of yourself. You’re confidence and desire to care for the patients may take hold of you and cause you to become a bully one day. I urge you, evaluate yourself and every situation you come in contact with. I for one, would have never guessed I would become a victim of a bully, I had much better pegged myself as accidently being a bully, because of my opinionated nature. Because of this, I have made great strides to protect myself and those around me that I feel are vulnerable. I encourage you to do the same.
We have a responsibility to protect one another. Why is it we can all seem to do it so seamlessly in a life or death situation, but cannot be bothered to continue in our daily routine. We owe our fellow nurses respect and dignity and the ability to be the best nurse they can be.
If you hear your fellow nurse being bullied, Speak Up!
If you see your fellow nurse struggling, Offer Help!
If you sense your fellow nurse needs a friend, Be One!
As nurses, we have the ability to positively impact so many lives. Let us start first with those in the trenches’ of healthcare with us: our fellow nurses.

About The Author

22 thoughts on “Respect and Dignity: A Nurses Guide to Bullying in Nursing”

  1. Our home health department is run by two bullies from the top down. The two RN bullies bully the middle RN that does the scheduling and everyone around them. I don’t know how she can face it every day. I’ve seen her break down and cry about it. She does not deserve to be treated that way. It has been a public spectical for years, and is just getting worse. Every one in the office knows what’s going on, and it’s really hurt moral. No one wants to lose their jobs, so they don’t bring it up to the two offenders. Its a sad sad situation. We get eaten alive (bullied) if we are weak, sick or complain about anything work related.

    1. Cindy,

      When I was experiencing bullying, what I wanted more than anything was for another nurse to speak up for me. I often had many tell me privately that what I was experiencing was wrong, but never would they have the guts to stand up for me when I needed it the most.

      If you can find the courage to speak up against the bullies for the nurse who is being bullied, you’ll likely find a friend for life.

  2. I have 30+years of experience. I have been bullied as a R.N., as a CNM, and, as a FNP. Interestingly, I just left a position at a large HMO, because I witnessed my coworkers being bullied by a nurse manager. I have now recently begun working as RN. As a new RN employee, but, not a new nurse, I have just experienced myself being bullied. I have now called attention to the “nurse bully”. She fits the profile of a bully. I will now await to see what happens. I am still on my probationary period. Have a great day,

  3. Caryl J Carver, RN, BSN

    and not so young.. I have 13 years of OR experience and am presently working as a traveling nurse after having been harassed and bullied by a whole team of nurses and scrub techs for 2 1/2 years. The Human Resources Rep at the hospital where the abuse took place told me to “suck it up”. Even though it was becoming very dangerous for myself and for my patients as I was not permitted to speak either to make comments about the case or to ask questions, the bullying went on until I could no longer take it anymore. I will admit I considered suicide an option, this is how far down I let myself get before I realized I HAD to get out if I wanted to survive. I suffer from PTSD as a result of the treatment I received from this group of “caring professionals”. Still I am haunted by the taunts of one individual in particular. If I make the slightest error, even in my own home, I can hear his voice in my head mocking me. This should never happen to anyone but certainly not at the hands of people working in health care.

  4. Very importsant topic, well handled. Somehow, we Nurses need to find a way to both support each each other and hold each other accountable – we don’t do either very well or consistently at present, and it hurts us all, distracts, demoralizes, weakens, and degrades our professional reputation. Thanks for your help in this regard.
    I too have been bullied – as a Nurse and elsewhere growing up. For years now, when I’m 100% and on my game, bullies typically regret playing in my vicinity very soon after they start, and they stop – I have teeth, know to gather as many allies as needed at any moment, and debating and Psych skills have their uses. Still, none of us are always feeling or functioning at 100%, relatively weak and vulnerable instead at times. Students and new grads, especially, are in a position of nearly automatic weakness – I was fortunate to have years of relevant clinical experience before entering Nursing, but most of us find Nursing a little more directly and early in life than I did, at nearly 30 years old. I keep such an understanding in mind as I teach SNs and Nurses today.

    1. Good! Young nurses need someone to take them under their wing. They need guidance and good role models and nurses who will help to mold them into competent and assertive nurses. The first year in nursing is so critical in molding a nurse. New nurses need our support.

  5. I have been on both sides of the “bullying” issue. I have been a nurse for almost 2 decades and a charge nurse on a floor for almost ten years on night shift. I have been through many nurses because of the turn over rate of night shift. I became the “target” when a group of nurses formed a “bond” and decided to try to overtake me. I had oriented all of them and they we all new nurses for the most part, but that did not stop them from trying to become the “leaders” of the floor. I had never experienced this before. They would not come to me with problems with patients, they would try to take care of it themselves and when they did come to me, the situation was usually out of hand. I pride myself on being a very even-tempered nurse and person in general, but this group pushed me to a level of anxiety I have never experienced. I finally left the night shift, and it was a wonderful change. That particular group of nurses didn’t stay long after I left either. I don’t think one of them is left!
    But in the same manner, I have also been called the bully. I never felt that I bullied people and still don’t. But I do hold nurses to a standard of care that I feel is safe for the patients. My co-workers that are familiar with me understand that I am not being harsh, but I do expect them to do their job and I will call them out if they don’t. I realize there is more than one shift and I don’t call people out for not changing out IV’s or simple tasks such as that, that can be passed on to the next shift if necessary, but I do call them out if I continue to get patients from them and they continue to ignore the tasks time after time. If I continually get patients from them that are in a “mess” then I will call them out on it. Does this make me a bully? I really don’t think so. At some point we have to hold each other accountable for patient care. I realize that it can be taken to the extreme by some, but it is a necessary component of our job. If we don’t hold each other accountable, who will??

  6. I came to nursing later in life; as a young woman a nurse had made a difference to me when my mother was dying. I wanted to give back the same way. When my spouse and I became more financially stable, I went back to get a BS because the community colleges wouldn’t have me. I was successful in my training and graduated with honors and clinical awards. My husband and I moved shortly thereafter, and I found my first nursing job in med/surg at a small community hospital. It was the worst experience I ever had. There is not enough room here to list the daily torments and humiliations I was subjected to by my coworkers. I lasted 6 months, lost weight, developed sleeping issues and now have extreme anxiety. Always somewhat shy, I am not leaving the house much. Luckily, my husband’s job is stable. I need to start looking again, but I will not ever work as a nurse again. There are bullies everywhere, but nothing like I witnessed in this so-called profession.

    1. Please do not let the faults of a few outshine the qualities of many.

      Once I moved out of the toxic work environment and experience working with nurses who not only cared about their patients, but each other, and even ME, I really gained a loved for nursing.
      I will also tell you that social anxiety and phobias are something that I also struggle with but seem to overcome it through forcing myself to. By that I mean that I just talk. I never meet a stranger. My patients appreciate this about me and and I’ve had many thank me for just “talking to them like a person”.
      The rewards of nursing outweigh it’s faults.

      Women are catty. I’m sure people will have their opinions on this, but if you can find a unit with males there I have notice that women tend to act better. There is a deep physiological need for us to be seen as attractive to the opposite sex, even if we aren’t attempting to. Because of this, in my experiences women then to straighten up a little when in the presence of a male co-worker.

      Ever notice how all the nurses seem to sit up a little straighter in their chairs when the MD walks up?

      I really do encourage you to give nursing another chance. We cannot afford to loose people like you who are obviously smart and passionate.
      If I can be of any assistance, please let me know. I will be more than happy to lend what little knowledge I have. Just know that you are not alone in this experience, which doesn’t make it any better, I know. However, what it does mean is that we can ban together to stop this scar on the face of our profession and stop Lateral Violence in nursing.

    2. Dear Anonymous,
      Please read and re read the comment on the psycho social aspect on the lateral violence, or bullying, or whatever you want to call the harm we do to one another as nurses. I was a nurse who started out as an LPN over 30 years ago who worked alongside another LPN who tormented me, cursed me, and in general endangered my professional life by withholding info, or lying about me to the supervisors. She was a float nurse and I was the staff nurse. I remembered those days now as I went back to school. I will graduate this May with my MSN. I lost contact with that nurse but I remembered how she voiced her hatred toward RN’s and it seems society in general. My research is on intergenerational conflict and steps to resolve it. Her actions made me remember how horrible it was to go to work when she worked on my unit. So again don’t leave the nursing profession. regroup, confront if you can (choosing the right time and privately), gain allies, inform management if you choose, to get rid of this toxic person who has created an unhealthy, poisionous work environment. Remember, the torments are harmful to the patients and your mental and physical health.

    3. I am a registered nurse working in Sussex Partnership NHS Trust in Crawley,England.Bullying is rife within the service.Managers and staff routinely abuse other staff,of all grades.Many of my colleagues now have serious mental health issues.Some have suicidal thoughts.

  7. Thank you for your powerful picture of this sad aspect of nursing. I'm combating it by doing role plays on how to handle various manifestations of this with my students in post clinical conference.
    Suzanne Alton

  8. Thank you for your well stated comment.

    It is clear you know what was happening. In fact some of the other nurses, at least initially, would often come to me privately and tell me they were sorry, but as you haven mentioned, it was much easier for them to avoid tbe confrontation and prevent being a victim themselves. Reading your comment brought to mind so many instances where I would stop an wonder how nurses, whose basis for practice is caring, could completely disregard the pain and torment I was often
    being made to face, privatly at first, and then most bolding and publicly as time went on.

    I appreciate that you have researched this topic and would love the opportunity to read more from you. Actually I would love to feature you as a guest blogger if you are intersted. Since you did not leave your contact information, I am hoping you will refer back here for follow up.
    I feel strongly that bring vocal about the topic of lateral violence is very important. I would love to hear more about how to prevent being a target and how how to stop the progession of the bullying.

    Please contact me if you are interested.

    [email protected]

    Thank you.

  9. Hi Nerdy Nurse, I landed by chance on this page. I'm a nurse academic and I do research on professional issues including violence and bullying.
    I just wanted to correct a misperception that, unfortunately, seems widespread. You mention that nurses' "confidence and desire to care for the patients may take hold of them and cause them to become a bully one day".
    I have to emphasise that bullying behaviours are never about being "too keen" about patient care and safety. Nor are they about being too confident. It is not about a nurse's actual ability to care for patients either (most victims have a good record until the bullying starts). Although bullies will claim it is about protecting patients, it is more simple and more complex than that. This is about a person's self-confidence – not being too confident, but actually the exact opposite.
    Bullies share common traits: they are usually quite influent on the team (but are not necessarily in a position of authority over others), they adopt leader-like behaviours (which can be those of a negative leader), they seem involved in many things beyond patient care (e.g. committees) and overall they seem to be well respected by the team. However, and perhaps surprisingly for some, these individuals are also rather insecure individuals. Bullying behaviours are not about the bullied person – no matter what they do or say, it will *always* be turned against them (much like in situations of domestic abuse where the abused can never please the abuser). This is about the bully and how their abusive behaviours gives them a sense of control over their environment, including their peers. Being insecure and having low self esteem are typical features of the bully (no matter how well they conceal this). Bullies will also choose a victim who displays these traits. That's why new grads are easy targets.
    Peers typically remain silent by fear of being the next victim. While they seem to agree with and support the bully, most of them are actually very aware of what is happening but prefer not to get involved (e.g. they gradually stop talking to the victim and associating with him or her in any way) or if they do they will pick the side of the bully because they do not want to become a target. The bullying behaviour becomes that much more powerful because of this apparent consensus around the victim's "worth".

    It would actually be quite simple to stop if early on peers would confront the bully about their his or her behaviours. This is particularly powerful if this occurs in public (e.g. team meetings, hand overs) because the power structure that the bully is slowly building collapses instantly. However, these behaviours are slow to manifest and escalate. They usually begin discretely, often in private, involving only the bully and the victim. As the victim's self worth and performance (tightly related) become affected, the bully becomes more confident about taking this further, and may start involving others (the behaviour becomes public). This slow evolution of bullying makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when things started to "go wrong". Most of the time, victims don't even realise they're being bullied. Because the bully can enjoy a close relationship with supervisors and managers (because of their over-involvement in many activities, which makes them look quite good), the victim will hesitate to consult with them and file a complaint.

    I hope this clarifies the psychosocial aspect of bullying behaviours. Please don't associate them with a higher-than-normal sense of duty and confidence because it is the exact opposite. Much like in domestic violence, it only has to do with the offender's low self esteem, anxiety, insecurity and his/her need to control others to alleviate this anxiety.


  10. I agree

    I look to the wisdom of the more seasoned nurses. They have so much insight and expericen they can share with me. I often think I could be misinterpreted as a know it all, but I really just enjoy sharing information I have. In the same regard, I enjoy having information share with me.
    Bottom line is rrespect and professionalism, and you are right, we will never been seen as professionals until we can pull it together and get with the program.
    Let's be the generation of nurses that does it, let's be a part of nursing history.

  11. It's not just the new young nurse who gets bullied. These days the older nurse is also bullied for being old, overweight, more experienced, and better paid. You get ignored if you work around young nurses who are partiers, pregnant, ect. They resent your knowledge and roll their eyes when you try so hard to show them or teach them things. Then they whine and accuse you of anything they can think of to make you look bad. Often you may change jobs and have 25 years of experience and try to learn a new area but have a charge nurse with 2 years experience try to make you do things you know are very wrong- you have to walk on eggshells to be part of the click and be very careful how you handle situations where you have to do what you know is right to protect your license. You also love your profession and have encouraged and preceptored and mentored many nurses and been well received. I dont know what is going on but its very sad. I always wanted to learn anything others knew from different clinical experiences to broaden my knowledge but many young don't want to know and a lot of older nurses are burned out. As you get older you do have more health problems or different ones- instead of being pregnant, having the morning after partying headaches ect, you have back problems, menopausal problems or worse- we all work in areas around many germs and illness but I got fired for being out sick during my 90 day new job probationary period after bullied by HR and some young staff. I've saw another new staff person who was overweight be ridiculed and ignored also. Nurses will never be seen as true professionals until we take a stand. We also have to stop this age discrimination where we top out on the payscale and they either try to make you retire or find or fabricate some dishonest way to fire you. The skill mix needs to have the proper ratio of new and old(experienced) nurses to be safe.

    1. Marsha AKA "Nurse Buttercup"

      Same here anon. They resented the fact that I didn’t mindlessly accept assignments I knew to be unsafe. During my short time there I caught three serious med errors,in two cases the wrong Insulin dose was about to be administered of reg instead of NPH. I also caught a serious pharmacy error that would likely have killed my patient but because I can’t move as fast and question unsafe practices I was set up to fail with an absurd assignment. It was the administration too,not the young nurses I worked with,they were desperate for guidance and came to me with questions and I was glad to help. I saw egregious errors in infection control in a hospital that had serious problems with outbreaks of resistant organisms.It’s all about $$ and administration resented the hell out of my higher pay scale and when they realized they didn’t have a mindless drone who might actually suggest improvements that cost $$ they fired me. It’s all about the bottom line,not improving patient care.

  12. As a guy, you actually have a huge advantage in this from what I have seen. While initially you may have to work harder to prove yourself, women seem to have their act together a little more often when males are around. I am sure its some deep seeded survival reaction, but even the bullies that I encountered somehow managed to resemble ladies in the presents of male personnel and female authority figures.

  13. As a soon to be new nurse, and an outspoken person in general, I am absolutely terrified I will mark myself as a target for bullying.

    It seriously already stresses me out, like I need something else…

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