4 Quick Tips for Managing Workplace Bullying

May 1, 2013
Kendra Stea
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Lateral violence, horizontal violence, bullying . . . I’ve heard all these phrases used to describe the unsavory behavior that occurs from time to time within organizations between colleagues. Sometimes this behavior takes place in peer-to-peer relationships, sometimes it’s between a supervisor and subordinates, and sometimes it’s interdepartmental.

Let’s face it: We all find some individuals easier to work with than others, and nothing requires us to “like” all of the other people employed by our company. But we should be required, by policy, if not common courtesy, to treat one another with respect.

Did you know that if your health care facility is accredited by The Joint Commission, your facility has a requirement to provide training to prevent lateral violence? More on that later . . .

CPI defines workplace bullying as behavior that involves persistent and ongoing acts of incivility directed toward an individual or group. We define incivility as any rude or discourteous behavior toward an individual or group. This might entail things such as name-calling or purposefully excluding people on an email chain with important information. It might involve spreading rumors, or flat out ignoring someone when they ask you questions. The point is that it is persistent and ongoing. Have you seen it? Have you been a victim? Or have you been a perpetrator?

Bullying exists in environments where it’s allowed to occur. It’s a complex issue to be sure. It’s not about having a boss with high expectations. It’s not a disagreement that gets heated on one occasion. Yet, we have all seen it occur. I hear about it all the time—nurses joking about “eating their young,” endless stories of doctors becoming hostile and aggressive when their orders are questioned—even when they’re incorrect.

The first step in addressing the issue of workplace bullying is to define it and set expectations about it across your organization. Train your staff on what they can do to prevent it and address it if they see it occurring.

Here are four quick tips for managing workplace bullying:

  1. Put policies into place. People may argue that we are “policied” to death at this point, but it is through these policies that we can set the clear expectations about what workplace bullying is, what workplace bullying isn’t, and what staff can do about it when they see it. Educate your teams on the subject.
  2. Take a long hard look at your own behavior. As an individual with a strong Type A personality and a “D” on the DiSC® profile, I know I can come across as blunt or even rude at times. It is imperative that I check this in myself. I can become impatient quickly, and must ask myself, Is it just the situation or am I impatient with an individual or a group regularly, and what can I do about it? Really think about how you engage (or not) in the rumor mill. How do you speak about groups or individuals in your organization? If someone addresses an issue with you or a situation where you made them feel uncomfortable, what do you do with that information?
  3. Call it out. If you see someone engaging in workplace bullying, say something. If you don’t, you’re giving it permission to continue. This is perhaps one of the trickier tips: What if the person who is being inappropriate is your supervisor, or the president or CEO of your organization? It is awkward; it can be uncomfortable; but telling someone, or telling the person if you are able, is helpful and necessary to prevent the behavior from continuing.

    An example might be that you see Jane telling Joe that what Joe just did was “stupid and incompetent.” Jane then begins to make comments like, “I hope I don’t have to be on a unit with Joe. I don’t like to work with stupid and incompetent people. ‘S’ and ‘I’: Stupid and Incompetent.” Then Jane begins calling Joe “S.I.” instead of Joe to his face. We have a workplace bully in the making.

    Talk to the person in your organization that sends the “nasty-gram” emails. Maybe they aren’t aware of how they’re coming across; maybe their intent is to intimidate the receiver.
  4. Stop it. Policies are only as good as their level of accountability. If you have a workplace bullying policy in place, it needs to be enforced. Instances of this type of behavior should be reported and investigated, looking for persistent and ongoing patterns of the behavior.

The Joint Commission named its July 9, 2008 Issue 40 Sentinel Event Alert “Behaviors that undermine a culture of safety.” It is clear that, through the undermining of employee safety, disruptive individuals threaten patient safety. And safety is the core mission of every accredited hospital or organization. In response to this safety threat, effective January 1, 2009, the Joint Commission promulgated a new Leadership Standard (LD.03.01.01) [PDF] to address intimidating, disruptive, and inappropriate behaviors. The Joint Commission cited research demonstrating that negative interpersonal conduct by physicians and others can lead to medical errors, preventable adverse patient outcomes, poor patient satisfaction, increased cost of care, increased malpractice risk, and turnover among professionals who have to deal with the abusive offenders.

In order to prevent and eliminate workplace bullying, we need to create a culture that does not support those types of behaviors, as I’ve said before. Bullying will only thrive where it is allowed to.

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