Dr. Renee Thompson: The Science of Complaining to Address Bullying

The Science of Complaining to Address BullyingThis post is part of 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.

Becky furiously paced back and forth in her boss’s office as she rapidly blurted out her feelings about one of the bully nurse’s on her unit. “Marge insults the new nurses and bosses everyone around her. She belittles us in front of patients and physicians every chance she gets. I am so done with being treated this way!” As Becky complained, she realized her boss was checking email and not really paying attention to her. Sound familiar?

Bullying is a problem that leaves nasty fingerprints on individuals, witnesses, and patients. Although confronting the bully is always a good strategy, confronting doesn’t always stop the behavior. And, there are some coworkers whom many would be too afraid to directly confront. In these situations, it may seem tempting to make a bee-line for the manager’s office to complain, but not so fast.

Speaking up to your manager is critical, however, how you speak up can make all the difference. It’s important to understand that there is a BIG difference between complaining and filing a complaint.

Complaining vs. filing a complaint

Complaining and filing a complaint both serve to voice your concerns, however, the way they are perceived by the receiver is very different.


Complaining can also be viewed as venting or gossiping. Complaining, be it to coworkers, friends, or even a boss, might feel good at first, but the relief is temporary. In fact, the only result of complaining is to make you feel better. Rarely does complaining result in improving the situation.

Filing a complaint

Filing a complaint on the other hand, involves a direct action aimed toward solving a problem. When filing a complaint, approach your supervisor or HR representative in this way: Say, “I’d like to file a formal complaint regarding ________’s behavior that I believe undermines a culture of safety.” Then, provide the documentation that includes examples of the specific behaviors that have you concerned. When you approach the bullying issue this way, you assertively communicate that you will not tolerate bullying behavior and that you expect your supervisor or HR representative to take action.

Back to Becky. Let’s see how she could have more effectively communicated her situation to her boss:

“I am here to file a formal complaint. I have supporting documentation listing dates, times and details of events that illustrate Marge’s bullying behaviors targeted toward me and many of the other nurses on our unit.” I bet Becky’s boss will stop checking her email and start paying attention!

If you are being bullied, keep a small notebook with you and document what you observe. Be sure to include details and witnesses. Stay objective and keep your emotions out of it. When you have several observations, ask to meet with your manager or HR representative and “file a formal complaint.”

You deserve to be respected and treated fairly at work. Filing a formal complaint may be the most effective step toward getting somebody to address your bullying coworker.

Have you been in a situation like this? How did you handle it? Share your story with myself and American Sentinel University on their Facebook page. 

Thanks so much 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. American Sentinel University friends and family can get 25% off Renee’s great anti-bullying products – simply enter in the code: AMSENT16.

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