Putting a stop to workplace bullying

November 13, 2020
Caitlin McCafferty, Assistant Editor
Caitlin McCafferty, Assistant Editor

Have you been a victim of bullying, or is it an issue in your veterinary practice? Here are some ways to identify, manage, and help prevent workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying can have serious, long-term harmful effects both on the person being targeted and on the veterinary hospital itself. According to Melissa Supernor, LVT, CVT, VTS, CFE, CCFP, founder and president of Educational Advocates for the Veterinary Team in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, no one should have to feel anxiety or fear about going to work because of how another team member makes them feel. In her lecture at Fetch dvm360® virtual conference, Supernor explained what workplace bullying is, who is targeted, and how to move forward if you are a target or a manager.

What is bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated mistreatment of an individual. “It’s a true form of abusive conduct,” Supernor said. Bullying can be verbal, physical, or social and can occur in many forms:

  • Name calling
  • Teasing or making inappropriate/offensive jokes or comments
  • Physical abuse or threats of harm
  • Gossip
  • Intimidation
  • Excluding or socially isolating someone
  • Withholding necessary information or purposely giving incorrect information
  • Deliberately impeding someone’s work by constantly changing work guidelines or establishing impossible deadlines that set the employee up to fail
  • Pestering, spying, or stalking
  • Assigning an unreasonable workload
  • Underwork or overwork (too many or too few hours)
  • Cyberbullying, such as mean texts or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social media, embarrassing photos, videos, websites, or fake profiles (for individuals or practices)

Mobbing

Workplace mobbing is a form of bullying that is described as ganging up on the target. This form of emotional abuse is often considered a “cancer,” Supernor said, that spreads throughout the workplace via gossip, rumors, and unfounded accusations. This type of abuse is often perpetrated by a leader in the practice and often leads to reduced quality of client care.

Harassment

Bullying certainly looks and feels like harassment, Supernor said, but there is “a very fine line” between the two. Harassment is illegal and occurs when a person from a protected status group (eg, gender, race, ethnicity, and disability) is bullied by someone not in that protected status group. Illegal discriminatory harassment occurs in only about 20% of bullying cases. “That means 80% of bullying is completely legal,” she said.

Who is targeted?

According to Supernor, a target is someone whom the bully considers a threat. “It really is the perception of the bully—and it’s only in the bully’s head—that you are a threat,” she said. The target is not doing anything threatening or wrong, she explained, but because they are skilled, intelligent, ethical, honest, and well liked in the practice, the bully feels that they may take something away from them and somehow damage their own career path.

Being a target of bullying can have serious detrimental effects:

  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Increased sense of vulnerability
  • Physical symptoms (inability to sleep, loss of appetite, etc)
  • Inability to concentrate at work
  • Family tension and stress
  • Panic or anxiety about going to work
  • Low morale or productivity

Likewise, bullying can undermine the success of the hospital itself:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased turnover
  • Higher stress levels
  • Decreased productivity and motivation
  • Increased risk for accidents
  • Increased costs for employee assistance programs, recruitment, etc
  • Decreased morale
  • Reduced client confidence
  • Poorer customer service

If you are a target, Supernor wants you to take away these 2 key points: You are not alone, and you did nothing wrong. “You are probably not the only one in your company, in your practice or hospital, or in the profession that is being bullied,” said Supernor. “You did not cause this.”

How management can help

For a variety of reasons related to the manager and the bully, veterinary hospitals may find it challenging to stop bullying behavior. But there are some things managers can do, starting with not ignoring the problem.

The first step is education. “Train everybody, from management all the way down, on what that means to have a bully in your practice,” said Supernor. Educate the team about what a bully is, what harm bullies can cause, and that bullying will not be tolerated. It is very important to have a written workplace policy in place that outlines what will happen in cases of bullying.

Managers must try to work out the problem before it escalates. “Deal with it at the start,” she said, “before it gets out of control.” Treat all complaints seriously and mediate in the best way you can via an impartial third party. This can help prevent anyone from taking sides and limits the potential of making the situation worse if it is not handled correctly by management.

Finally, Supernor recommended the American Veterinary Medical Association and Workplace Bullying Institute as excellent resources for those who are being bullied and for managers trying to put a stop to it.