This chapter is an excerpt from PROtect Yourself Now! Violence Prevention for Healthcare Workers and is intended to raise your awareness and leave you with a sense of hope. We don’t have to put up with bullies anymore.
As I sit here at the keyboard writing this chapter I’m finding it interesting, if not somewhat depressing, reflecting on the number of incidents throughout my career where I have come up against a bully. There always seems to be another around the corner!
Calley provides an enlightening story of the pressures she experienced in starting to work in a dysfunctional workplace. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Imagine how it would be to finally find meaningful employment as a Care Aide after a long and tedious job search only to find that your new worksite is toxic. And the toxicity was aimed at you … the newcomer. Or so it seems, from your perspective.
From the first days of her orientation to the new job, Calley noticed that her fellow staff weren’t all that friendly towards her. It wasn’t obvious at first but Calley could sense that they were treating her differently. Conversations would stop when she walked into the office. When her coworkers were going for a “coffee run” she wouldn’t be asked if she was interested. Her contributions in shift report or staff meetings were dismissed by certain staff. “When you’ve been here long enough you’ll see things differently.” “What do you know, you’re new here!”
Yet at the same time, everybody else seemed to get along fine. There always seemed to be a party at somebody’s home. Calley wasn’t invited. Some of her fellow coworkers would switch their shifts so that they could work with each other or to work with a certain nurse when they were in charge. Calley found that she seemed to be taking most of her coffee breaks alone. Her fellow staff would have other matters to tend to when their coffee break was due.
Calley relates “I expected some challenges when starting a new job … being the new kid on the block, but this seemed over the top.”
Several months into working at her new job, Calley sensed that some of the residents seemed to act differently when nurse Flo, was on shift. Some of them seemed to be more sedated than what would be expected. Others, seemed timid or perhaps fearful in the presence of Flo. When Flo was on duty many residents received sedation. Flo liked the unit to be calm. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, Flo liked her residents to be quiet.
On several occasions Calley had observed Flo shouting and berating residents for their behaviour. Calley related that she felt intimidated by Flo so didn’t confront her directly but mentioned her observations to a few of her fellow care aides. She was met with hostility and further shunning. The “old” staff seemed to protect this nurse and condone the behaviour.
Calley reported her concerns to the Team Leader who in turn, dismissed those concerns. They spoke in support of Flo. At about this time Calley was spending a considerable amount of her off duty time thinking about her working conditions. She found her sleep was restless at times with intrusive dreams of work. Perhaps it was time to start looking for another job?
On a couple of occasions Calley observed Flo shouting at residents from the medication room, down the hall, to come and get their medications. This seemed to be acceptable by her fellow staff and nobody seemed concerned when she voiced her opinions that this wasn’t a respectful way to treat residents. The final straw, so to speak, came one day when Calley observed Flo shaking a resident. The resident was watching TV and Flo approached the resident grabbing them by both shoulders and shaking. “When I tell you that medications are ready I expect you to get your ass over there and get them! Do you hear me? Are you deaf? You better do as you are told or you will be sorry!”
Calley shared this story with her fellow Care Aides and found no support. She reported it to her Team Leader and experienced a similar response. It was only when the resident themselves approached the Team Leader to complain, was action taken. The local Licensing Department was contacted and Flo was suspended pending investigation.
Was this the end of the story? Not according to Calley … it was only the beginning! Flo started a phone campaign to smear Calley and make life miserable for her. Each of the staff were phoned and advised that “Calley was a rat.” “Don’t turn your back on her, she will stab you!” This flowed back to the worksite where her fellow staff who had been avoidant and dismissive of her now became openly hostile. Flo took on a victim role and created a story where she was the wrongfully treated hero of the saga. Guess who was the bad guy?
Calley’s time at work became absolute misery. Fellow staff would call her “Bitch” to her face and behind her back. Similar sentiments were scrawled on pieces of paper and stuck to the front of her locker. One nurse was openly hostile towards her. “Bitch. I hope you’re happy, you’ve ruined the life of a good nurse. You don’t deserve to work here. No wonder nobody likes you!” This was repeated several days in a row when Calley was scheduled to work with this nurse. Calley was losing sleep at night and started to phone in sick when she had to work with these staff.
As part of the investigation Calley was asked to document her observations of the abusive nurse, which she did reluctantly. No other staff submitted support for her. It was Calley’s word against the nurse’s. The resident’s testimony was not given much weight.
The nurse was eventually returned to duty with a sanction on her personnel record. She maximized her victim role and relished the power that it gave her in the worksite. Calley left the worksite due to the continuing pressure. She eventually returned after a couple years. Many of the staff who had worked there at the time had moved on, but not Flo. She continued to make sure that every staff that worked there was aware that “Calley was a rat!” Every interaction she had with Calley from then on, was openly hostile.
If you were to ask Calley today whether she would do it again, she would respond “No way! It was absolute Hell what they put me through. Nobody should be treated that way.”
If we take a closer look at this story what can we take away or learn from Calley’s experiences?
Starting off with Assessment, what do we know about this worksite?
- There seems to be an “old boys” network in place or a clique. Newcomers were not welcomed into it.
- There was a shroud of silence where workers didn’t talk or even acknowledge the untoward actions of others.
- Interpersonal hostility towards new staff was the norm rather than the exception.
- Certain staff had more “power” over others than what was part of their job description.
- The residents were not treated respectfully at times.
- The Team Leader and presumably administration condoned dysfunctional behaviour by one of its nurses or at least ignored dealing with it.
- Reporting inappropriate actions by fellow staff resulted in you being labeled as a rat.
- Passive aggressive behaviour was rampant, e.g. open messages left on lockers.
- Aggressive behaviour was tolerated.
- Lack of cohesiveness and inclusiveness with new and existing staff i.e. us vs them mentality, with the “us” being the existing staff.
Moving on to Awareness, it would seem obvious to most of us that this was a dysfunctional worksite. More pointedly, there is strong evidence of interpersonal aggression, hostility, bullying and intimidation. This is workplace violence in action.
Our Action phase becomes a little more challenging. What would you do in this situation? Calley persevered until it got worse. She took action to resolve one aspect of her working conditions which made it even worse. She eventually chose to leave the worksite. Economic necessity required her to return.
I will remind you that this is a practical guide to preventing and surviving violence in the workplace. Perhaps the most practical action that Calley could’ve taken was to quit this job shortly after she learned what the working conditions were like. At the essence of this story is power and control. As the new hire, Calley had neither. Was Flo a bully? Most definitely! Were there other bullies at the worksite? The story doesn’t specify so, however bully-like behaviour from her fellow staff seemed to be the norm rather than the exception.
When taking on a bully, your self-confidence can be a factor that determines the outcome. If you experience low self-esteem, low self-confidence, the bully will use it against you. However, as this manual is all about, knowledge is power, if you use it wisely. Many of the actions that could be used in this scenario can be drawn from the section on bullying outlined elsewhere in this manual.
Assuming that you have made the decision to stay and take on the bully and the dysfunctional worksite, here are some practical steps that you could take to do so. Feel free to add your own at any point.
- Flo had an inordinate amount of power in the workplace, at least when she was on shift. Openly challenging her with other staff present would only fuel her attempts to maintain the upper hand. What about the other nurses and care-aides? Did they all back and support Flo or were there some that went along with her but didn’t necessarily condone her behaviour? When taking on a bully it is important to create alliances with your fellow workers. They may not have the courage to stand up on their own.
- Documentation is the key to success when reporting an incident to your manager. It is nearly impossible for your manager to conduct an investigation when they are provided with anecdotal information. It is too easy for the bully to counter accuse or deny, saying that the events never happened or that your interpretation is biased. Collect objective facts. What did you see? Who was involved? Will any of those involved back up your story? When did the situation take place? Do not flavour your report with opinion or add your interpretation of why the bully did what they did.
- Familiarize yourself with the tactics that a bully will likely take when accused of wrong doing. There is great value in predicting a bully’s actions.
- If your worksite has a JOSH Committee (Joint Occupational Health & Safety), get the subject of working conditions placed on the agenda. It wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to address the bully by name, but there would be value in creating discussion on healthy and respectful workplaces.
For further discussion of conflict and conflict resolution in the workplace, visit the Live For Excellence Book Store for the following publications:
Surviving and Thriving: How to Ensure Your First Year at Work Doesn’t End in Disaster
Bullyproof Your Workplace: Strategies to Prevent Workplace Bullying
PROtect Yourself Now! Violence Prevention for Healthcare Workers
Assert Yourself! Harnessing the Power of Assertiveness in Your Career
Rae A. Stonehouse is an author, speaker, and self-publishing consultant dedicated to helping others embrace constant improvement and overcome challenges. With over 40 years of experience as a Registered Nurse in psychiatry and mental health, Rae brings a wealth of knowledge and passion for self-development to his writing and presentations.
As a 25+ year member of Toastmasters International, Rae has systematically built his communication abilities and self-confidence to share his insights as an author and speaker. His self-help books and personal development presentations aim to have conversational one-on-one connections with readers and audiences.
Rae is known for his wry sense of humor and sage advice delivered in a relatable coaching style. After four decades as a nurse, Rae has rewired rather than retired, actively writing and pursuing public speaking. He strives to share lessons learned to help others achieve personal and professional growth.