how to say no to the bully at work

The letters to the editor column of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand reveal the prevalence of horizontal violence in our profession. But there is a solution. A nurse offers some  practical steps to putting a stop to intimidating behaviour at work.

By Leigh Kelly

Horizontal violence is the term used in the health sector for bullying and/or intimidating behaviour in the workplace. That it happens is a sad indictment on a caring profession - a profession where the goal is to help people get well. Yet, too often the carers are not cared for and become stressed and unwell.  When sick people look after sick people, how can wellness be an outcome? 

Historically, intimidation has been an accepted style of management.  As a student nurse, it was nothing unusual to be bellowed at or ridiculed.  That management “style” is probably still used in many other industries. The use of humiliation, blame, ridicule, put-downs, not to mention with-holding information, unrealistic deadlines and unavailability of management, is not new, nor will it go away. This does not make it right, but it has to be recognised and action taken, so those affected can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem.

It is not easy to take a stand and say, “No, I am not going to subscribe, support or encourage this behaviour anymore. I am going to take control of my life.” But it can be done. Here are some steps to help you on the journey. 

  • Step 1: Decide not to be a victim, or a persecutor.
    Step 2: Find the way to do it.
    Step 3: Say “No” to bullying, horizontal violence, intimidation or humiliation at work.
    Step 4: Help others to overcome bullying.

Remember -  Those who can don’t.  Those who can’t bully!1 
It is helpful to identify the players in the bullying game. 

  1. The victim
    This is you (or someone you know). Being a victim is easy and can be a good game to play. It gives the perception of power, as you believe the situation is not your fault. While this may be correct, the reality is you cannot be a victim unless you play the victim game.

    When you feel picked on, intimidated, excluded, or finds information is being with-held, this can be an old script from your past life starting to play all over again. You may have had older brothers or sisters who bullied you or played nasty games on you, or you may have had a parent or school teacher who was a bully and ridiculed you.
    Subsequently, as soon as you perceive a person acting in this or a similar manner, you respond from your old script and the familiar old feelings flood back.  It may be uselessness, helplessness, powerlessness, feeling a failure, or incompetence - it doesn’t matter what it is, but it is real.  The moment you play this game, the downward spiral has begun and the situation is likely to deteriorate. You are not wrong to be feeling this way but it is important to understand  what you are feeling.

    Stopping the game sounds good in theory, but is a little more difficult in practice as these scripts have been playing out in your life for many years. There are things that can help.

    • Recognise what is happening:  Acknowledge your part in the situation. Another person cannot intimidate, persecute, belittle, and humiliate you, without you allowing it to happen on some level. This does not mean it will go away or that you are wrong, it merely means a game has begun. A game of tennis cannot be played without an opponent - take one person away and the game finishes. By understanding you are playing out an old script in the way you respond to any situation, will assist you to devise a plan to help arrest the problem and attain peace.

    • Document everything:  Seek ways you can stop playing the game.  Ask questions: “Who does this person remind me of?’;  “When did I last feel this way?”; “What was happening to me the last time this happened?”;  “What did I do to stop it the last time?”

      Keep a journal. Chances are in similar situations in the past you may have walked away, given up your job,  found some way to make the person wrong for hurting you, got into “it wasn’t my fault” or some other justification. You may have thought you were the problem. 
      Document every incident at work that led to the present situation, and the similarities to previous situations. Be courageous and write incident forms on each occasion of bullying. This will not only help you to change but it can help create an understanding of the situation. It will also provide evidence to take to your manager, or with which you can confront the perpetrator.

    • Change the way you see the other person. You see yourself as the victim here so why should you do anything -  it is all the other person’s fault!  However, there is very good reason for changing the way you see people. This can help break a pattern of perception and enable different interactions to take place.

      We all project our script/behaviour onto other people without realising it. When you display fear, insecurity, or lack of confidence, you will not only make more mistakes, be at risk of accidents, suffer from headaches and other illnesses, you will also be inviting the old script to be played out.

       Many years ago I was told: “When you change, Leigh, everything else around you will change”. I scoffed at the time but have found it is true in personal and professional situations. It is about taking control and refusing to allow others to control you.

    • Discuss it with the person:  Where possible, this is the best solution.  They may not realise their behaviour is affecting you and others.  This is not easy to do.  Make sure you have specific incidents, with times and dates, and keep to the incident not the person.  Attacking the perpetrator will only get the game to start all over again.

    • Talk about it to others: Recently I was in a temporary work situation working with an intimidator. I didn’t recognise it until I had been there for some time. I thought I must have been the problem, until one day I made a comment to another person. This comment gave that person the opportunity to talk a bit more freely about how it was for her. She said others had left because of the manager. She felt she was trapped and it was sometimes a  struggle for her to come to work. I subsequently found out  several people had left because of this manager. As it was almost my last day and the manager was away, I did not get the opportunity to discuss it with him. But I contacted senior management and told them of what was happening in the unit. 

    • Talk to senior management: If you feel you cannot approach the perpetrator, or if talking to the perpetrator did not achieve any results, talk to management. If they choose not to do anything about it that is their choice and they will suffer the consequences. 

      If you cannot broach it with the person involved, do not feel bad about it.  It is not easy to confront a person, particularly if it is a peer and you feel you are criticising them. Signs are always present that something is amiss in the ward/unit, and can be verified by monitoring the attrition rate, sick leave days taken, low morale. When such signs are seen, they need to be investigated. If managers fails to act, they do so is at their peril.

    • Request a round table discussion:  Make sure you have a support person and so does the perpetrator.  Keep away from personalities and focus on the issues.  This has to be treated in the same way as a disciplinary matter, even though disciplinary action may not be the outcome.

      The best way to manage any problem is to face it head on. However, always remember that for change to happen, both the persecutor and management have to see it as a problem.  If this is not the case, you have little option but to leave.  Also remember the intimidator/bully has had years of practice.  They are very skilled in their behaviour, and it has served them well.  They may well think they have nothing to change and this is a very difficult situation to battle against.

  2. The persecutor
    Persecutors behave in such a way because it has worked for them in the past and is obviously still working or they would not do it. I believe underneath the persecutor/intimidator is a very insecure, unsure, angry, unhappy person.  They may also be people who are high achievers - driven personalities who are perfectionists. They may not realise any of their behaviour is upsetting others. We only see the world through our own eyes. If people are doing work they don’t like, feel they are out of their depth, that other people know more than they do, or are being driven by someone above them or by expectations from home, then all sorts of behaviours will result, bullying/intimidation included. The reasons for such behaviour are complex and varied.  

    To analyse an intimidator and offer excuses is a fruitless operation so don’t waste time trying. You remain in the problem and are not part of the solution. The best way to deal with a perpetrator is use some or all of the suggestions above. 

  3. The employer
    The employer must deal with any actual or suspected bullying  immediately.  If left to escalate, the problem will be much more difficult to control or manage. Indicators of a problem include:

    • a high attrition rate in a ward/unit;
    • increased sick leave, accident and incident reports;
    • general low morale and dissatisfaction, reflected in increased complaints; and
    • compensation claims

    Solutions to bullying behaviour include:

    • l having effective internal procedures for complaints;
    • l awareness training for staff;
    • l linking anti-bullying policies to induction,
    • management training and performance appraisals;
      l conducting exit interviews to ascertain true reason for leaving;
    • l clarifying management roles and acceptable behaviours, eg lead by example, focusing on behaviours not personalities;
    • l clarifying fair and equitable employee boundaries;
    • l monitoring the workplace for signs of stress and conflict; and
    • l recording the nature of complaints and levels of absenteeism.

Bullying in the workplace is rife. It comes from both management and peers. Even when it is brought to the notice of others, the outcome for most is to get another job or shift to another unit.  While this is unfortunate, particularly if you enjoy your work, do not stay in an unsupportive or unhappy work situation just to prove a point. 

With the new Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Act, employers must take bullying/intimidation seriously.  Staying in a stressful situation, eg working with an intimidator/bully, when the situation is not going to change, will damage your health. It is easier to get another job than to recover from burnout, depression, heart disease or cardiovascular problems, all of which can be precipitated by a stressful work environment. No amount of money can compensate for damaged health - you and your health are priceless.


  1. Tim Field - for more information on bullying visit
  2. New Zealand Herald 30/11/02-1/12/02 Careers Section NZ Herald Written by Angela McCarthy

Leigh Kelly, RGON, ADN, is  a wellness and lifestyle guide. She is the author of “Life’s an illusion” a guide to caring for a person with Alzheimer’s Disease. Her background includes management and business in nursing-related fields. She owned a rest-home for seven years. 


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