How to effectively respond to BULLYING.

One topic that I find comes up in my conversations both online and amongst other nurses more than any other is that of bullying.

I hear of managers bullying staff.
I hear of executive bullying managers. Staff bullying managers. Staff bullying other staff.
I am told of bullies that are promoted up the line. I am told of managers who are hesitant disciplining staff for fear of being branded a bully themselves.
I even hear of head on collisions; with bullies trying to out bully each other.

What the heck is going on here?

First up, there are far more good nurses than bullies.
On the whole my feeling is that we are compassionate, collegial, professionals.
We are also working in an extremely difficult environments.

Every shift, every one of us, face a unique collective of pressures and stresses that arise from managing the suffering of others in an environment of increasing constraints and complexities.
Despite this, no one wakes up and thinks, “well… I’m off to work to really put some people in their place today”.

Yet, it seems (anecdotally at least) our profession, and our workspace is rife with bullying.

Bullying may be officially defined as:

Repeated, unwelcome behaviour of a person/s which has the potential to cause harm to a person/s wellbeing and may include;
Continued aggressive behaviour that intimidates, humiliates or undermines a person.
Deliberate misuse of power, and can come from people at level, above or below the employee; and It can also occur outside of work location or hours and still affect an employees work performance or well being.

I you have ever been bullied you may have experienced repeated incidents that result in you not feeling your contributions are being valued, or suffered a pattern of interactions from others that you feel are dis-respectful.

Or you may have felt that you have been excluded from participating or contributing to your workplace.
Perhaps you have been the recipient of unjustified criticisms or vexatious complaints.

Bullying may result in you experiencing reactions such as:

  • withdrawal from wanting to interact with some individuals.
  • loss of professional confidence.
  • persistent rumination around particular events.
  • no longer wanting to participate in workplace development activities.
  • loss of respect for authority.
  • depression.
  • Increased workplace cynicism.
  • passive/aggressive behaviours (you know…assuming the role of the belly-up victim instead of strategically and assertively dealing with it).

As you can see, these sorts of reactions (as opposed to responses) are not beneficial to anyone, and quickly lead to a vicious cycle of your own behaviours not helping the situation at all.

Here are a (by no means comprehensive) list of suggestions on what I consider important strategies to help you respond to bullying in your workplace.

Keep a diary.

I cannot emphasise this strongly enough.
Once you begin to feel you are being exposed to bullying behaviour, keep contemporaneous documentation of events & interactions.

Record objectively and accurately what happened, what was said and who it involved. AND, record your feelings. How the events made you feel at the time. How it has affected your performance.

Keep a reference or copy of all relevant email correspondence.
Building a portfolio of evidence to support your experiences of being bullied is especially important if the behaviours are coming from multiple sources or occur over a sustained period.

Do and Do NOT.

Do NOT begin to bitch or complain about your situation to other staff.  
Do NOT launch your own retaliatory strike of air-to-ground cluster bullying after forming an alliance with other staff members.
Do NOT try to manage the situation totally on your own.
Do NOT give up, or assume it will just ‘go away’.

DO find a trusted friend or mentor and talk to them about it in private. A friend can help you achieve clearer objectivity and fresh perspective. They can also motivate you to step up and assertively respond to the situation.

DO try to define (with a little help from your friend) exactly how you want the other persons behaviour to change and what you need them to do to achieve this.

DO consider professional support or workplace assistance particularly if you are experiencing some of the physical or psychological effects of bullying.

Bullying or discipline?

Most of the time bullying is a direct result of unacceptable behaviours by others. Occasionally it is a little more complicated than that.

Ask yourself: is it possible that your perceptions of being bullied may actually be your reaction as other people respond to your own actions or behaviours? Try to reflect on this objectively. It might help to discuss it with a trusted friend.

But attaining some insight into your own possible contributions to this situation will greatly assist in moving towards a more authentic resolution.
There are times when bullying is in fact a direct result of poorly executed attempts at discipline or feedback.

Senior staff and managers have a legal obligation to uphold the organisations values and policies. This may require them to give you difficult feedback or require a change in your performance or behaviour. Not all managers are good at this, often as a result of poor support or inadequate training/education.

Managers (and other senior staff) are required by virtue of their roles to:

  • Manage underperformance issues and undertake disciplinary actions where necessary.
  • Ensure workplace policies and standards are implemented.
  • Provide safe rosters that balance the units needs against the needs of individual staff.
  • Implement organisational changes.
  • Omit individuals from meetings or information that is not relevant to them.

If these actions are based on reasonable grounds, and are performed skilfully, with correct accordance and respect, they are NOT workplace bullying.

Go to the source.

Arrange to talk to the person(s) involved in private. As soon as is practical.
Again, I strongly emphasise the importance of this. And it is often not an easy thing to do.
An exception to this is if you do not feel safe meeting with the other person (for example, after threats have been made) or the situation is so bad that informal resolution would be futile in your opinion.

By making direct early contact with the person(s) involved you can often shut down any escalation in bullying, clear up any misunderstandings and set some boundaries. It can also be a starting point to re-establish a mutual professional respect.

As I have said….there are inevitably a lot of strong emotions tied up in any experiences of being bullied. This is not an easy thing to do.

Remember: in order to really get to the bottom of this, your goal is not to provoke the other persons worst self, but to talk to the other persons best self.

So. When talking to the other person(s):

  1. Focus on the behaviour rather than the person. The goal is to highlight changeable behaviours and set professional boundaries, NOT attack personal characteristics.
  2. Be descriptive not evaluative. Do NOT tell the other person you think they are a bully. Tell them how their specific behaviours made you feel (your diary entries will help you with this) and how it has affected you. Tell them how you need their behaviours to change.
  3. Assume you are right, but test your assumptions. Try to hold an attitude of curiosity around the other person(s) behaviour. The problems may be generated by misunderstandings from one or both parties.
  4. If needed, open a discussion around you own behaviours. In the case where you have reflected that your own actions may have contributed to this situation, now is the time to talk about it.

Sometimes these meetings with the other person(s) will be short and shut down by the other person not really wanting to engage.

Sometimes the other person may even continue with their behaviours during the meeting.

Sometimes some powerful emotions will be explored resulting in a very positive outcome.

But if you feel this meeting is not going well, or making things worse: STOP.
Thank the person for meeting with you and retire (from the meeting, not your career).
And of course that meeting was confidential. Document in your diary but do not discuss with other staff.

Informal actions.

If you feel the matter has not been resolved satisfactorily, or the bullying behaviour continues you should approach an appropriate manager (in cases where your immediate manager is part of the problem seek assistance from other trusted leadership) and discuss the situation with them.

In collaboration with your manager you might decide on options such as:

  • The manager speaking to the person directly.
  • A meeting between young the other person(s) with the manager present.
  • Arranging for a ‘third-party’ professional mediator to work through the issues with all parties.
  • Working with your educator to improve awareness amongst staff of bullying behaviours and staff expectations.
  • In some cases, separating you on the roster (or even geographically) at least for a time may be helpful.
  • Your manager should have access to clear policy and guidelines to assist with this process. It will include strategies to protect you against any repercussions from making allegations and maintaining privacy.
  • They may also suggest involving further resources such as human relations (HR) or other staff trained in managing bullying behaviours (for example: in my hospital we have Respect, Equity, and Diversity officers. These are staff trained specifically to provide assistance and support).

Formal complaint.

If all other processes have failed OR the behaviour is serious or longstanding then a formal complaint can be made. Do not be intimidated in taking this step if necessary.

Your hospital will have a clear policy regarding this process which should be followed. Try contacting your manager or HR department for more guidance on this.

You will be expected to present credible evidence to support your allegations of bullying. It will need to include dates, times and names of any witnesses.

In serious cases you can contact the Human Rights Commission directly. Their Website offers information to assist with this.

For more information:

For more information and assistance with respect to bullying and its management. you might find the following links of use:

Bullying in nursing: Ausmed.

Bullying and harassment employee entitlements – Fair Work Ombudsman.


  1. ACT Public Service, Respect, Equity and Diversity Framework–2010, Available from
  2. Caspersen, D., & Elffers, J. (2015). Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution. Penguin Group US. Retrieved from
  3. Preventing Work Bullying Guidelines- ACT public service –2010- Retrieved from
  4. Bullying and harassment – Employee entitlements – Fair Work Ombudsman. (n.d.). Retrievedfrom

2 thoughts on “How to effectively respond to BULLYING.

  1. I have to agree, at least in the US. Managers and HR people are trained in removing the credibility of one over another, even in severe situations, so that they protect the facility / company from any legal action. Its clearly known, “Everybody’s gonna ‘get it’!!!”


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