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.