Dr. Renee Thompson: Nurses Eating Their Young –  Bullying or Hazing?

Dr. Renee Thompson: Nurses Eating Their Young – Bullying or Hazing?

This post is the sixth in a series of posts on nurse bullying and conflict in the workplace written by Dr. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN. Dr. Thompson is one of the top professional development and anti-bullying thought leaders in nursing.

The phrase, nurses eat their young, has plagued our nursing profession for decades. The experienced nurses treat student nurses like babies and graduating nurses are warned ahead of time to watch their backs and expect that the existing nurses will torture them.

Forty-eight percent of graduating nurses are afraid that they’ll become the target of workplace bullying. More than 60 percent of all new nurses quit their first job due to the bad behavior of their co-workers.

Sarah is a new nurse. Her preceptor, Linda, an older nurse, tends to be tough on Sarah. She gives Sarah the toughest patients, doesn’t step in to help even when she sees that Sarah is drowning. Linda openly criticizes her in front of others and frequently makes comments about whether or not Sarah “has what it takes” to be a nurse.

Is Sarah being bullied? Or, is Sarah going through new nurse hazing? How do you know the difference?

The difference between bullying and hazing

Bullying is the repeated pattern of destructive behavior with the conscious or unconscious attempt to do harm. For a behavior to be labeled as bullying, it must be repeated and must be destructive to the individual. There also tends to be a perceived power gradient involved. For example, a physician may perceive he has more power over a nurse. Likewise, an experienced nurse may perceive he has more power over a student or new nurse and use that power to harm – to squash others.

Bullying involves exclusion, while hazing involves groups or teams. Members of the teams are basically tortured – embarrassed, harassed, and may suffer physical and emotional harm. The intent is to see if the new member is worthy to become a part of the group or team. We see examples of hazing among college fraternities, sports teams, or exclusive clubs.

Hazing involves inclusion. Being tough on new nurses to help them learn is a common behavior. Many experienced nurses say they learned how to become a competent nurse by being “thrown to the wolves.” They share stories about receiving only one week of orientation on a critical care unit, being told they’re in charge without any training, and single handedly caring for every patient on the unit while the other nurses take an extended lunch break.

They learned how to be competent nurses by suffering when they were new.

Because of this, some nurses actually think that by being tough on new nurses, that they are helping them. However, they are wrong.

Studies show that when you are unnecessarily hard on someone during the learning phase, they become less competent. Being tough on someone to help them grow is okay – just not when they are in the learning phase.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone’s intent is to exclude (bully), include (hazing), or teach (tough in order to help learn).

Bullying versus hazing clues:

  • Bullying usually involves an individual, while hazing involves groups.
  • Hazing tends to have a defined period of time while bullying can last for years.
  • Nurses who are tough may refer to how they learned, “when I was a new nurse…”
  • Nurses who are tough may say phrases like… “I wanted to see if you could handle it.” or “The best way to learn is to jump in feet first!” or “Nobody helped me and that’s how I learned.”

If you think you’re in a bullying or hazing situation, please speak up and seek the support from you leaders, educators, and others who recognize that it’s NOT okay to eat our young. We must nurture, support, and help grow our newest nurses.

Thanks for reading. Take care and stay connected!


Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author, award-winning nurse blogger, and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate workplace bullying. To find out more about Renee, please visit her website.

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