Careering Ahead

Tell bullies their behaviour is unacceptable

In May 2012, an independent report into NHS Lothian, a Scottish health board revealed “an organisation where being bullied, while not representing the daily experiences of the majority of staff, is common at certain levels…Staff feel intimidated and anecdotes of bullying behaviour are common.”

Scottish health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, who commissioned the investigation, commented that there was “no place in any part of the NHS for a management style or culture of this type and it will not be tolerated”.

Thankfully, the image of a huddle of white coats shuffling through a ward round and trying not to incur the scorn of their consultant now exists only in the minds of TV scriptwriters. However, junior doctors still tell me about instances of bullying behaviour during one-to-one encounters with supervisors, consultants, other trainees and nurses which leave them feeling undermined and belittled.

The problem is that they are often reluctant to do anything about it. Some are unsure if they are simply being over-sensitive; others believe it’s not their place and that making a complaint could jeopardise their career; and there are those who think it’s easier to keep their head down because it won’t be long before they are moving onto a new job.

This is understandable but it often means that real action is only taken when something dramatic happens such as a public slanging match or a patient complaint. In the meantime, colleagues tiptoe around the culprit becoming steadily more demotivated or are driven out altogether. Worse, other excellent doctors may be put off from joining the department because of the rumours, so patients are potentially disadvantaged as well.

In an article called Building the Civilised Workplace which was published in the McKinsey Quarterly in 2007, Robert Sutton of Stanford University argued: “Bad things happen when bullies win using personal attacks, disrespect and intimidation…only the loudest and strongest voices get heard; there is no diversity of views; communication is poor, tension high, and productivity low; and people first resign themselves to living with the nastiness – and then resign from the company.”

Of course, a bullying culture can only be eliminated at organisational level but I believe individuals must play their part too and that includes junior doctors:

– Be aware of your hospital trust’s anti-bullying policy and use it to report bullying behaviour to your supervisor or the Human Resources Department.

– Keep a diary of significant moments and how they made you feel. You may want to refer to this when talking to your HR Department.

– When a fellow doctor tries to undermine you, perhaps by making personal remarks, don’t just ignore it. It may not be appropriate in all cases (if they are physically intimidating or aggressive, for example, you should follow your anti-bullying policy), but try explaining to them that their behaviour is unacceptable. In many cases, he or she may not even be aware that there is anything amiss because they have made similar comments before without anyone speaking out.

Naturally, few of us want to stand up to a boorish colleague but if you don’t, who will? In my next blog, I will explain how a strategy called constructive confrontation can help you manage these situations.

Healthcare Performance was established by two doctors with over 30 years’ experience of clinical governance and medico-legal work. It specialises in careers coaching, professional development and organisational trouble-shooting within the healthcare sector.

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One Response to “Tell bullies their behaviour is unacceptable”

  1. js says:

    ……and get suspended amid a series of false allegations which go on for years until you are supposedly deskilled. If you manage to defend yourself you have to agree to undertake extensive retraining under the supervision of the individual perpetrating the bullying intially who makes life impossible. This is, of course, if the bully hasn’t referred you to his/her friends down at the GMC to have you struck off!

    Dr Ewa Michalak anyone?

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