Dr. Renee Thompson: Taking Legal Action Against Workplace Bullying

Dr. Renee Thompson: Taking Legal Action Against Workplace Bullying

David was a hardworking new nurse but was yelled at and criticized constantly, blamed for things he didn’t do, and deliberately set up to fail by his coworkers. This unit had a reputation “eating their young” yet the manager consistently failed to address any claims of a bullying behavior. He just ignored it. When David tried to file a complaint with his manager, he was told to “toughen up” and not to be so sensitive. The manager actually defended the perpetrators by saying that instead of David complaining about them, he should try to learn from them. After all, they were “excellent” nurses. David decided to toughen up and really tried to fit in but started suffering headaches, diarrhea, and anxiety attacks to the point where he was afraid of making mistakes at work. David was left with no other option than to quit his job. Did David fail or did David’s manager fail?

I hear stories like David’s every day. Recently, one nurse said that the only thing worse for him than unemployment is employment! We have to ask ourselves the question – What responsibility does the manager have to protect employees from bullying coworkers?

What does legal say?

Employers have a duty to protect employees,” comments Rick Birdsall, a former employment attorney turned HR consultant. He reminds us, “If they fail to control the workplace, they potentially breach their duty.”

Managers have the responsibility to listen and take action when receiving complaints of any behavior that violates policy, patient care, and team performance. But what happens when the whole system is unsupportive? Birdsall predicts that in the same way we’ve seen support grow with regard to sexual harassment, we may expect to see that same growth with regard to bullying and the obligations supervisory staff have to protect their employees.

This month, a nurse was awarded $348,889 in a bullying trial against a physician and his medical practice for sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation (Patricia Hahn v. Scott Davidson, MD, et al.) The clinic ultimately settled, paying $440,000.

We are beginning to see a trend against bullying by holding employers responsible to protect employees from bullying behavior.

Taking action

If you are in a situation where you are struggling with bullying behavior, don’t give up. Take action:

  • Get a copy of your organization’s policy related to disruptive behavior. Pay particular attention to the employer’s responsibility and the actions they need to take. This is usually listed under the heading of “process” or “procedure.”
  • Use language found in the policy in your formal complaint.
  • Keep communicating with your employer (immediate manager and typically someone from Human Resources) regarding their responsibility and that you are holding them accountable to protect you “according to your policy.”
  • Seek legal counsel.

Changing a bullying culture to a professional, supportive, and nurturing culture can often be very difficult, especially when leadership fails to address complaints of bad behavior. But change is POSSIBLE! The battle against bullying requires employers and employees working together to recognize and take action against disruptive behaviors that undermine a culture of safety and respect.

We are hemorrhaging really good nurses, like David, to bullying and can no longer afford to use silence as a strategy. And now, it looks like the trend is that employers will finally be held liable if they do! Progress – Priceless!

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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