What to Do if the Bully is Your Boss? 5 Steps for Nurses

Updated on August 28, 2023

By Renee Thompson

Nurse-to-nurse bullying is pervasive, destructive and doesn’t belong in a profession that is supposed to be caring and compassionate. To help nurses protect and bully-proof themselves, I conduct workshops on bullying. My workshops are designed to help academic organizations who are trying to create cultures of civility and respect among faculty and student populations; hospitals who are trying to enforce a “zero tolerance” for bullying (hint – just having a policy doesn’t work), and individuals who feel like they are swimming upstream in a sea of bullies.

During my workshops I have met some of the most wonderful, caring human beings who are just trying to make a difference. It breaks my heart to hear their stories of bullying.  I feel even worse when I get asked this question, “What do I do if the bully is my boss?” Really? Unfortunately, some of the most horrific examples of bullying I’ve heard involve nursing leaders.

Does this sound familiar to you? I hope not, but if it does, there is hope. There are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from the bully-boss. Keep in mind, these are just highlights!

1.     Recognize the behavior as bullying:  It always shocks me when I learn that some nurses don’t even realize they are being bullied. They just get used to the behavior and get numb to it. Just like the famous frog in a pot of boiling water example (if you put a frog in boiling water, he will jump out-but if you put the frog in when the water is cool and slowly heat the water to boiling, the frog doesn’t notice and boils to death), nurses get numb to the behavior and think it’s normal.

Some examples of bullying boss behavior:  unfair schedule, openly criticizing and yelling in front of others, showing favoritism to certain nurses, not being approachable, not being available to staff, etc.

2.     Speak up:  You may not be comfortable speaking up to your boss about the fact that you think he or is she is a bully, but you do need to tell someone.  Is there an educator you can confide in? What about a Clinical Nurse Specialist or APN? Can you talk to someone in your professional nursing organization (if you belong to one)?  Is there an experienced nurse who you can talk to? The point is this – TELL SOMEONE!!!!  Telling another person might provide the support and objectivity you need to address it.

Note:  If you don’t have anyone you trust, you can always email me – really. I’ve had nurses from all over the world reach out to me. I can’t tell you how much it helps just talking to someone about it. [email protected]

3.     Document, document, and document:  Keep a journal with you at all times. Record specifics regarding behaviors you’ve experienced. Be objective and include date, time, who was involved and any other details that will support you.

4.     Confront your boss: For most, this is the scariest step. However, getting your boss to stop bullying you does require that you address it in some way.

If you are comfortable, and think that you have a chance of improving your relationship, ask to meet with your boss. Have a conversation about your documented observations. You may want to start the conversation like this: “I’d like to have a conversation with you about our working relationship but you need to know that I’m uncomfortable having it. The relationship I have with you, as my boss, is important to me. Lately, I’ve noticed….” and then give specific examples.

If you are NOT comfortable or think your boss is a queen bully-boss, consider either meeting with his or her boss, or filing a formal complaint with the Human Resource department. Remember, complaining is not the same as filing a formal complaint.

Consider this:  Confronting might not work, but NOT confronting never works.

5.     Consider leaving:  Sometimes, the bully-boss has been in his or her role for so long that some organizations just accept the behavior (for many reasons). If you’ve recognized you’re being bullied, you’ve told somebody, tried to address it but the behavior isn’t getting any better or worse – your boss is retaliating, consider leaving.  If you’ve done steps 1 – 4 or if you think the problem is so bad that you can’t even imagine step 4, then you’ve earned your right to leave!

Ultimately, you deserve to work in a nurturing and supportive environment – free from the bullies, especially the bully bosses.

For more help on nurse-to-nurse bullying, check out my YouTube Channel videos which can be accessed through my website www.rtconnections.com. Also, my first book titled, “Do No Harm” applies to nurses too! Strategies to protect and bully-proof yourself in your work environment, will be published and available in mid September. You can sign up for my mailing list on my website.

I really hope these tips help you to succeed and feel good about the work you do.

Thanks, take care, and stay connected!

In her just-released book, “Do No Harm” Applies to Nurses Too! Strategies to protect and bully-proof yourself at work, Renee tackles the dirty secret that has plagued the profession of nursing for years. She brings the topic of nurse-to-nurse bullying to life in healthcare organizations and academic institutions by using real-life examples and scenarios paired with effective problem solving strategies.

To order Renee’s book on nurse-to-nurse bullying, please click here or visit her website at www.rtconnections.com.

To find out how you can bring Renee to your organization, contact her at [email protected].

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