Lets play spot the bully

February 4, 2019
Oriana D. Scislowicz, LVT, PHR
Oriana D. Scislowicz, LVT, PHR

Oriana Scislowicz, LVT, PHR, was a veterinary practice manager for many years before becoming senior HR specialist at Pharmaceutical Product Development.

How body language and other warning signs can help you identify a bully in your veterinary practice.

If one staff member is yelling while the other remains calm, they might be a bully. (Jon / stock.adobe.com)Every workplace has a bully. If you think you've never encountered one, you're likely mistaken. According to a 2008 study performed by Judith Lynn Fisher-Blando, 75 percent of participants reported witnessing coworkers being mistreated at some point in their careers. Moreover, 47 percent of those surveyed felt they had been bullied in their professional lives. How many of us only think we haven't been bullied at work? Bully behavior can present itself in many different shapes and sizes, and at times can be difficult to pinpoint. Often, the victim either blames themselves or is blamed by management for being overly sensitive or uncooperative.

Look out for bullying body language

Bullies can be spotted by their aggressive and disrespectful body language. They often glare or cast stern looks at people when having a discussion. Other signs may include frowning, carrying a clenched, tense jaw, exasperated sighs or eye-rolling. Bullies feel inconvenienced by any conversation they do not initiate, and do not take the time to actively listen (or even pretend to) when the other party is speaking.

Their behavior is often intimidating and frustrating to other employees, especially when they have to approach the bully. Often, these aggressive team members will push their chest out or enlarge their body when approached or even invade others' private space by standing too close. A “cowboy stance” with their legs spread 14 to 16 inches apart, paired with hands on the hips, can signify a threatening pose. 

Watch out for flying syringes

A more blatant picture of bullying might be demonstrated through object aggression. I remember working in a hospital early in my career where the doctor would throw a syringe across the room at the techs out of frustration. It happened so often that we became used to this bad behavior. Similarly, there was one doctor who threw their stethoscope in the trash when they were upset (hope you didn't pay too much for that, because that's where it's staying!). There's no way around it: object aggression is abusive, demeaning behavior that should not be tolerated.

It's not what you say, it's how you say it

Bullies employ verbal intimidation by raising their voice, abruptly speeding up or slowing down speech or punching specific words in a sentence. While this may happen to most of us at times during a heated debate, for bullies it's a recurring behavior. They also often don't match the volume or tone of others involved in the conversation.

But verbal intimidation doesn't just mean yelling. Words can also be used to belittle and threaten. One of the more common behaviors I have observed in my career has been the creation of derogatory nicknames. This is disguised as playful when it's actually one-sided and cruel. Bullies stir up gossip, describing coworkers as failures. These comments often stem from few specifics or examples and are meant to show the bully in a more positive light in contrast (in a workplace with a positive, healthy culture, this should result in the exact opposite, demonstrating the lack of professionalism of the perpetrator).

Knowing the tell-tale signs of a bully is the first step to addressing damaging behavior. It's important to discuss and deter intimidating and aggressive behaviors early on before the morale and level of engagement within the team suffers. Frequent communication via one on one meetings, team meetings, reviews and even anonymous surveys are key in keeping an eye on potential bully activity.

Oriana Scislowicz, BS, LVT, aPHR is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and regional manager at CVCA Cardiac Care for Pets in Richmond, Virginia.