Dr. Renee Thompson: Three Ways to Protect Yourself from a Bullying Boss

Dr. Renee Thompson: Three Ways to Protect Yourself from a Bullying Boss

This 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.

Rose became the target of a bullying boss after just six months in her new job, working in the Intensive care Unit at a Level I Trauma Hospital. Rose wasn’t a new nurse but this was her first time working in a city hospital and therefore, she expected that the people would be a bit intense.

At first, she basically ignored the various bullying behaviors by her coworkers – public criticism and name calling, excessive nitpicking during shift report, and even the exclusion during breaks and unit activities (the nurses organized a group pot luck but “forgot” to tell Rose about it). Rose just expected some level of nasty behavior considering that she working in an ICU where stress levels are always high.

But she didn’t expect the same treatment from her boss.

After three months of being tortured by her coworkers, Rose finally told her boss about it. Her response shocked Rose. Her boss said, “If you’re too sensitive to handle minor, petty conflicts, I’m not sure you have what it takes to be an ICU nurse. Perhaps I made a mistake in hiring you.”

Really??? Rose was devastated. How could her boss react that way? But then things got worse. From the moment she opened her mouth, Rose’s boss joined her coworkers in torturing her.

Her boss started finding reasons to write her up, she openly criticized her in front of the other nurses, denied her schedule requests, and started threatening her with disciplinary action. At some point, Rose got concerned that her boss had a new target – Rose.

How many bosses are bullies?

According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Survey, 56 percent of the bullies had a higher ranking than their targets. Basically, more than half of all bullies are bosses, which can make addressing bad behavior more challenging. To make matters worse, many employees are blindsided with a “trip to the HR department” that is waiting with a termination.

However, there are some actions you can take to protect yourself from a bullying boss.

Three steps to protect yourself

  1. Get a copy of any policy from your organization that addresses workplace bullying, incivility, or conduct. Read the policies and get very clear on how your boss is violating policy.
  2. Start a documentation trail. Documentation puts the power back into the hands of the target. Documenting provides a more objective account of behaviors that might be considered bullying. When you document, be very objective: date, time, location, incident; include any verbatim comments and if you can link the behavior to a policy violation, it will strengthen your position.
  3. Engage in a non-confrontational conversation with your boss. Ask to schedule a meeting with her and share your observations. That you want to have a good relationship with her but you’ve felt that the relationship is strained. Give her a few examples of why you think this, (I’ve never overheard you criticize anyone but me during our staff meetings or at the nurses station, etc.) and how you would like her to treat you (I’m open to constructive criticism but I’m asking you to do so in private). Why this is important is because you are now able to document that you’ve addressed the problem with your boss yet the behavior didn’t change.

In the end, your boss may not change his/her behavior but now you can have a documentation trail that you can use if you’re ever in the HR hot seat. 

What happened to Rose? Rose had had enough! Instead of taking a passive approach and hoping her boss would stop torturing her, she decided to take action. Rose observed her behavior, especially compared to how she treated her coworkers. She documented every bullying interaction with her boss. After just eight weeks, she had enough evidence (20 pages) to clearly demonstrate a pattern of bullying behavior.

The next time her boss threatened to “write Rose up” (in front of others), Rose stood tall, looked her in the eye and said, “You just threatened me in front of everyone. Threatening is a violation of our policy on workplace bullying and incivility. Do not ever threaten me again.” Rose’s boss didn’t say a word. She just walked away. However, she never threatened or openly criticized Rose again.

As you’re reading these steps, you might be thinking that confronting will never work with your bullying boss. And, you may be right. However, not confronting never works

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. 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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