What to Say When You're Being Bullied

Nurse-on-nurse bullying. Lateral violence. Hostile work environment. These are common terms for what's sadly a common situation in many health care environments.

If you're being bullied, it can help to have a "script" that helps you face your harrasser. Peggy Klaus, a Berkeley, California, a leadership and communication coach, has taught courses on difficult conversations for nurses, physicians, and medical students.

Here she offers some recommendations but doesn’t propose a one-size-fits-all solution. “We each have our own level of tolerance,” explains Klaus, “You have to be vigilant and see how it's affecting you, and how it may be impeding your effectiveness. That’s especially important when you're working in the crucial role of a nurse.”

1. Talk to your supervisor.  Assume that nursing leadership is going to want to be helpful. (Many hospitals are anxious to put a stop to employee-to-employee harassment, if only because it places them at risk for lawsuits, for allowing a hostile workplace or retaliation if they a nurse who has made a formal complaint.)

One possible script from Klaus…

“Have you ever been bullied? What did you do to solve the problem?”(Makes the conversation more personal, and you'll be more likely to elicit empathy from your supervisor.)

“I'm concerned because If nurses aren't being collegial, it greatly affects the hospital." (Don’t emphasize your own distress as much as downsides your supervisor can relate to.)

“Patients don't get the kind of care they need, our evaluations as individuals and as a group will suffer. I've been thinking a lot about this problem. I would be doing my group a disservice if I didn't bring this up.”

2. Ignore the bullying. If that’s a possibility for you, you can decide to play along, be civil and respectful, and just go about your business.

“Don't play low status, though,” says Klaus, “which comes out in verbal and nonverbal behaviors such as having slumped shoulders or ending sentences with an upward inflection as if asking a question or seeking approval.”

3. Confront the bully. Be direct, assertive, and respectful and talk alone in a private, confined space, such as a conference room. Group confrontation doesn't work, so talk first with the lead bully, and if necessary, repeat with the others.

One possible script from Klaus:

"I've recently noticed behavior or signs that you're trying to bully me and I want it to stop.” (Give a couple of examples and say how it affects you.)

"I really want to work this out between us and not involve higher ups or human resources."

Ask for the bully's input and end on a positive, affirming note: "I look forward to working well with you."

If the behavior changes, but then the bully slips and starts up again, go back and have the conversation again.

"You know, things had gotten better but I noticed that this is increasing and it's got to stop."

4. If the bullying doesn't stop, go higher up the chain of command until you get relief.

Jebra Turner is a health writer in Portland, Oregon. You can visit her online at www.jebra.com.


I was bullied at a prominent hospital in Long Island. Complained to  the manager, assistant nurse manager, human resources, and CEO. I was eventually forced out by the Director of  Nursing and manager of human resources. I  could not believe   the eleborate schemes they employed  portray me as trouble maker even though the bully had a historty of bullying other employees. Shame on hospitals such as that for condoning workplace violence. Shame on the nurses  who s silently stood by ( some even condoned the bullying) and let their fellow coworkers  be subjected bulling by this staff member.  

Workplace bullies usually behave the way they do because they’ve been allowed to. When the rest of the team is unwilling to take the steps needed to put an end to the behavior, the behavior becomes a habit. The good news is that habits are learned behaviors, and learned behaviors can change!

Here are some specific steps you can take right now:

1. Follow the steps outlined in YOUR workplace policy on bullying or disruptive behaviors. (Joint Commission requires all accredited organizations to have a policy in place.)

2. Write down everything that has happened so far. Document it the same way you would document client care. Stick to the facts and give dates, times, etc. whenever possible. This will help you to keep yourself organized and unflustered when/if you are in a position to discuss the matter.

3. In all future interactions with the bully, remain emotionally neutral, kind, and even helpful. Don’t allow the person to frustrate you to the point that you lose control of your emotions.

4. Do your best at your job every day. Workplace aggressors want you to fail because it confirms their power over you. Don’t let this person have control of your career satisfaction and success. 

5. Never respond to negative words or actions with your own negative words or actions. It’s tempting to “fight fire with fire” when a co-worker is rude or disrespectful. But, by remaining patient and calm, you will disarm the assailant and bring a swift end to any rants, rages or other disruptive behaviors.

6. When you are ready (and if you feel comfortable), you can agree to meet with the problematic employee to discuss the issue. You can do this one-on-one, or ask for help from a supervisor or HR professional.  You might say something like, “Can we talk about what’s going on between us? I really hope we can resolve this problem together.”

7. When the two of you are finished talking, you can tell him/her how the situation has affected you. Remember, stick to the facts, and keep your cool. Let your co-worker know that you are committed to your job and that your goal is to be a team player and to provide the best possible care to your clients.

8. Leave the meeting with a concrete plan in place. You might say something like, “Let’s agree that you will let me know right away if I do something that upsets you, and when you bring it to my attention, we will stop what we are doing and address it. And, in return, I will do the same.

These tips are excerpted from a book I co-wrote with another nurse called "The REAL Healthcare Reform."