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Managing Bullying in Veterinary Teams

October 27, 2021

Download PDF Hills NVTW Bullying Notes

You’ve heard it described as a “toxic environment,” or “a poor culture,” but have you truly considered what it is and how you can make a positive change? What about the bully that doesn’t ever seem to be held accountable for their obnoxious behavior?

We will tackle all of this AND deliver solutions in ways to be the agent for change, regardless of your position on the veterinary team.

Together we will define the traits of a bully, name the behaviors found within a toxic work environment and how to tame them.  Then be given tools for your toolbox to begin to be the change you wish to see in your workplace.

Learning Objectives

  • Determine the traits of a bully
  • Outline the behaviors found in a toxic team or poor culture
  • Name the challenge to tame the behavior
  • Establish the tools given to you to move forward in a positive direction

More than 60 percent of veterinary professionals reported incidences of bullying in their practices in a recent survey.1

It is no secret an increasing number of veterinary professionals leave the field for other career paths. Although many factors contribute to these decisions, one resoundingly common problem is the all-too-familiar toxic work environment and/or poor culture.

Unfortunately, many of the individuals who exhibit toxic behaviors continue to do so without being held accountable. Those who continue to press on as advocates for the animals, there is hope.

Here is the good news—by bringing awareness to and creating a dialogue around this critical problem, you can promote change.

Bullying dynamics

In general, the person doing the bullying is in a position of power, but not always.

Bullying dynamics in the veterinary workplace could involve any the following:

  • Existing team member (vet, tech, assistant, CSR, etc.) and new team member
  • Senior employee and subordinate employee
  • “Clique” of staff members and individual
  • Veterinarian and support staff member
  • Employer and employee
  • Client and staff member
  • Corporate entity and hospital team or individual

Bullying examples

Saleema Lookman, RVT works in the state of New Mexica. She has seen and felt, first-hand the way a bully can tear apart a team and deteriorate the delivery of quality of care. She helped in researching and creating the following list.

Because unhealthy behaviors are so common among modern workplaces of any industry, it can be especially challenging to identify these practices. A few classic examples of bullying in the veterinary setting include:

  • Spreading rumors, gossip, or misinformation about a colleague
  • Withholding information or offering incorrect information
  • Uncommunicated changes in guidelines or privileges
  • Embarrassing an individual
  • Verbal abuse of any kind, including the use of offensive words, name-calling, or belittling
  • Setting an individual up for failure with impossible deadlines or tasks
  • Biased distribution of duties or responsibilities
  • Violations of privacy
  • Micromanaging
  • Manipulation to cause second-guessing of skills or knowledge
  • Isolating or excluding an individual or group
  • Deflecting blame onto another
  • Taking credit for the contributions of another
  • Threatening or executing physical abuse or unwelcome physical contact

These experiences describe a poor culture.

Effects of Bullying

Workplace bullying has negative consequences on the physical and mental health of the victim. Some of the commonly experienced effects of bullying include2,3:

  • Decreased self-confidence
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Ulcers
  • Insomnia

In addition to affecting the individual, bullying can also negatively impact the hospital’s bottom line. An estimated 65 percent of victims leave their jobs as a result of bullying.4 With increased turnover, hospitals are forced to spend more on recruiting and training. Not to mention, victims likely share their experiences with friends and family, which could potentially impact sales, or at the very least, the hospital’s reputation.

You deserve to feel safe and happy at work—if you are the victim of workplace bullying and it is affecting your well-being, it is time to reclaim your life. Follow the strategy, outlined below, to address the situation. You’ve named it. Now TAME IT!

Identify and document bullying

Trust your gut—if it feels like bullying, there is a great chance this is exactly what it is. Identify the bully (whether a group or an individual), what bullying behaviors they execute, and how they make you feel.

Consider not only how the bully makes you feel, but the harm they might bring to others and the overall workplace environment. After acknowledging these behaviors as unhealthy and unwelcomed, you can begin to take action.

It is important to have written documentation of these bullying events, should things escalate, and you need proof. Collect emails, screenshots of social media posts, or any other documentation to demonstrate bullying incidents. If you do not have any tangible evidence, create a written record of the date and bullying events.

Review your hospital handbook and determine what your policy states regarding workplace interactions. These policies are likely laid out in your practice code of conduct. It may state something similar to, “All employees will conduct themselves in a professional, responsible, and ethical manner.”

Clearly, anyone performing the examples of bullying, or making another person feel uncomfortable in any way, is not conducting themselves in an ethical or professional manner. So, identify if or how your bully is breaking company rules and retain this information should you need to report them to management.

Name it to Tame IT!

Labeling a feeling or experience is good because then you can begin to tame it. Naming an event or incident is a powerful exercise.

  • Disrespectful
  • Rude
  • Bullying
  • Belittled
  • Abusive

Choice in the moment in self-awareness

After identifying these behaviors for what they are, you can choose to speak up. Execute this step only if you feel safe. If speaking up to the bully alone could create a dangerous environment, wait and enlist support.

Your practice policies may define the recommended course of action for resolution. If it states, “employees should first discuss disputes and make every attempt to resolve it,” then you have the green light to engage the bully. Some policies may request any conflicts be brought to management for mediated resolution. Be sure to find out which policies are set in place for your hospital.

If you do make the choice to say something, prepare your statement in advance. This way, you will know exactly what to say and can do so with confidence.

Try something like, “I feel _________when this/your (habit or situation) happens. I find it very disrespectful (rude, uncomfortable, intolerable). Please don’t talk to/treat me this way.” You can either elect to approach the bully on your terms and time (preferred) or choose to confront them following the next bullying incident.

And, alternatively, if you find yourself wondering, “Am I a bully?” self-awareness is key to halting this conduct. In that moment, you can make the choice to pause, breathe, then pivot.

Take action!

Strive to be your own advocate and advocate for others on your team. As mentioned, it is incredibly difficult for those being bullied to identify they are the victim of a toxic situation. This means it is even more important for teammates to help identify scenarios where coworkers are disrespecting others.

If you do not feel safe confronting the bully, it is okay.

It is NOT okay to ignore or brush off these behaviors. Doing so will allow the behavior to continue, which will affect your mental and physical health. It is time to enlist support. Likewise, if you have approached the bully and they continue the behaviors despite your request to stop, get help.

Speak to someone in a leadership position about the behaviors. Your practice discipline policies may indicate who you can report to with these behaviors. Provide them with your documentation detailing the toxic events and let them know how it affects you. They may set up a mediation with you and the bully to address these actions.

This step can be challenging if the bully is your manager or supervisor. In that case, follow your hospital policy to seek out the person in the next leadership position to confide in and gain support. You can also enlist help from an organization like StopBullying.Gov or utilize resources from veterinary associations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), or National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA).

In conclusion

If you are the victim of bullying, know these toxic behaviors are not a reflection of you or your performance—they are a projection of the bully’s insecurities and their character. Regardless of the origin, bullying is not conducive to a healthy work environment.

You deserve to enjoy your role of caring for animals and your workplace environment. If you or a teammate are being bullied at your veterinary practice, speak up and shut these actions down. And if you are a practice owner or manager, addressing bullies is not only in the best interest of your staff but also your business and for the delivery of veterinary care.

Resources

1.Zubair, Shazra. Veterinary Workplace Culture Survey: A Summary of Our Findings. Vetstoria. Nov 27, 2020. https://www.vetstoria.com/blog/veterinary-workplace-culture-survey-summary-of-our-findings/

  1. Giorgi, G., Perminienė, M., Montani, F., Fiz-Perez, J., Mucci, N., & Arcangeli, G. (1AD, January 1). Detrimental effects of workplace bullying: Impediment of self-management competence via psychological distress. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00060/full.
  2. Lo Presti, Alessandro, et al. “The Associations between Workplace Bullying and Physical or Psychological Negative Symptoms: Anxiety and Depression as Mediators.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, vol. 15, no. 4, 19 Dec. 2019, pp. 808–822, 10.5964/ejop.v15i4.1733. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
  3. Bortz, Daniel. “Workplace Bullying Can Ruin Your Career and Health. If You’re a Target or Employer, How Do You Cope?” Monster Career Advice, 2010, www.monster.com/career-advice/article/workplace-bullying-what-can-you-do.
  4. Bell, Rhonda, CVPM, Is Gaslighting Burning Your Practice Culture to the Ground? Veterinary Practice News, July 2021, https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/is-gaslighting-burning-your-practice-culture-to-the-ground/