WVC 2017: Exploring Workplace Bullying Within a Motivational Context

March 9, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

Identifying what motivates employees to work—and which employees stifle this motivation—is key to addressing workplace bullying in veterinary practices and elsewhere.

At the 2017 Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, discussed workplace bullying, particularly as it pertains to employee motivation.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), workplace bullying is defined as “abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating…or prevents work from getting done.” It is often based on a bully’s need to control others. A 2014 study by the WBI reported that nearly 30% of employees suffer from workplace bullying.


Legally speaking, workplace bullying is different from so-called schoolyard bullying. Whereas schoolyard bullying is illegal, workplace bullying actually is legal in the majority of circumstances. Workplace bullying only becomes illegal if the victim falls under a federally protected class (eg, women, African-Americans) or if state civil rights laws are violated.

Workplace bullying is also different legally from workplace harassment. Dr. Lacroix mentioned that there is a large misconception that workplace bullying equates to harassment.

Identifying Employee Motivation

According to Dr. Lacroix, workplace bullying falls within a motivational context. Ideally, employees are motivated to work at their chosen workplace and actively pursue that workplace’s goals and objectives; they do not believe their workplace is, as Dr. Lacroix said, “just a place to work and get a paycheck.”

Once basic work motivations (ie, good base pay and benefits) are met, employees seek other motivations, including:

  • Opportunities to achieve, improve skills, and advance professionally
  • Job fulfillment and intellectual stimulation
  • Recognition for good work

Naot all employees are motivated by the same things, though. Developing individualized motivation plans can help practice owners gain insight into the sources of each of their employees’ motivation.

In addition to meeting general and specific employee motivations, it is important for a veterinary practice’s leadership to demonstrate their own motivation by remaining positive and inspired by what they do. In addition, they can encourage employees to read certain books, such as The Oz Principle, that promote individual accountability and motivation.

Recognizing a Problem

Keeping a pulse on what’s really going on within a practice can help that practice’s leadership recognize problems such as bullying. Internal employee surveys are great diagnostic tools for finding out what’s happening behind the scenes. On a humorous note, Dr. Lacroix likened these surveys to fecal samples: the fecal sample can detect a problem that may not be visible on the outside.

Importantly, workplace bullying is usually a sign of a larger problem and can be tied to the perpetrator’s lack of motivation to work. When the bullying becomes apparent, the practice’s leadership should consider several questions:

  • Why is that employee not motivated to work?
  • Is there anything about my practice or practice culture that fosters bullying?

Managing Motivation Killers

Motivations killers—“bullies, negative Nancys, and poor performers,” according to Dr. Lacroix—are toxic employees who do not align themselves with their workplace’s culture, to the workplace’s detriment. It is important to talk with these employees to learn why they’re not happy at work and to see if anything can be done to improve their work experience. Asking them “why”-focused questions can reveal the source of unhappiness or possibly bring to light unsubstantiated complaints or accusations about other employees.

Dr. Lacroix advised being judicious when speaking to and managing motivation killers. If their behaviors are intolerable according to the practice’s culture, though, it may be best to let them go. Admittedly, she acknowledged, this can be easier said than done, especially if the employee has technical expertise that is vital to practice operations. However, firing a toxic employee may have to be the cost of doing business, maintaining a positive workplace culture, and keeping other employees motivated.

Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, LLC, a medical communications company.