Bullies in the Workplace

When one of my students selected bullying among nurses as a research topic, I was genuinely surprised when she came back with countless studies on the topic of workplace bullying. What I believed would be a rare occurrence in such a caring profession was actually incredibly common.

Bullying most often occurs between experienced nurses and new student nurses. It is so well-known there’s actually a phrase for it: “Nurses eat their young.”

The American Nurses Association defines bullying as “repeated, unwanted harmful actions intended to humiliate, offend and cause distress in the recipient.” At work, it can take many forms, from deliberate acts of intimidation to docking pay or hours. 

Why do nurses bully each other? The possible causes vary, from competing for shifts and positions, to crazy long hours and exhausting work, to the prevalence of certain personality types, and finally to a culture that fosters this kind of nurse-eat-nurse mentality.

Workplace Bullying: Men and Women

Nurses aren’t the only ones picking on each other. Although we’re no longer on the playground, bullying occurs across all industries. And women are often at the receiving end.

It’s true that workplace bullies are usually men. But the majority of victims are women. On top of that, when women are the bullies, they tend to bully other women rather than men.

While conflict is encouraged among men, it’s viewed as problematic among women, whose interactions are thus negatively perceived as undermining one another.

The nature of bullying also varies between genders. It appears that while men tend to use verbal threats and intimidation, women tend to use manipulation. The theory is that because women are more “relationship-oriented,” their bullying involves sabotaging relationships through gossip, backstabbing, and social exclusion. This is not so different from what happens in the schoolyard, where girls more than boys are believed to have a greater tendency for “relational aggression.”

One explanation for this is the theory of the “Queen Bee Syndrome.” Researchers found that certain high-ranking women in the corporate world—“adult versions of the mean girls from schools”—tended to bully other women in the workplace. The assumption is that such behaviors are based on the perception that to be taken seriously in the workplace, women need to show they’re aggressive. Other research has countered “Queen Bee” claims, including the work of Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, who argue that this assumption relies on harmful stereotypes. While conflict is encouraged among men, it’s viewed as problematic among women, whose interactions are thus negatively perceived as undermining one another.

At the same time, women’s understanding of bullying varies from that of men’s. What’s considered acceptable behavior differs between genders. One study at a Canadian university among business school students showed that women tended to be more forgiving of certain bullying behaviors, finding them “morally acceptable.” These included “teasing; isolation; denial of opportunities; setting unreasonable deadlines; and assigning meaningless tasks”. What this seems to suggest is that some women don’t recognize when they’re being bullies because they don’t see these behaviors as problematic. 

If women are the targets of bullying, then it follows that more women are impacted by its adverse effects. That means more women feeling threatened at work and potentially less women in the workforce. 

Still, the statistics on workplace bullying are troubling, and regardless of the reasons for these kinds of abusive behaviors, something must be done. The fact is, bullying in the workplace impacts all employees, whether or not they’re direct targets. Effects include low morale, negative attitudes, increased absenteeism, and even depression. Half of those bullied felt that it affected them mentally and adversely influenced their job performance. Workplace bullying not only impacts productivity, but also retention. A whopping one-third of people who are bullied at work will leave their job because of it.

For women in particular, this is a serious concern. If women are the targets of bullying, then it follows that more women are impacted by its adverse effects. That means more women feeling threatened at work and potentially less women in the workforce. 

What Needs to Be Done? 

Putting an end to bullying would seem the logical and obvious response. Unfortunately, however, measures to do so have largely proved unsuccessful. While intervention programs have seen some success in increasing awareness among employees on bullying, they’ve done little to actually stop it from occurring.

If we’re hoping to increase gender equity in the workplace, we need to ensure that women feel safe, secure and valued there. 

It seems, then, that a shift in our perspective on workplace bullying is needed. Just as we’ve learned with bullies at school, we can’t just ignore the problem and chalk it up to nature’s way of doing things—of survival and “eating our young.” If we’re hoping to increase gender equity in the workplace, we need to ensure that women feel safe, secure and valued there. 

Corporate executives have weighed in on the many ways companies can encourage women to succeed, and managers can discourage bullying behaviors

But in terms of getting women colleagues to support one another in the workplace, what can be done? 

3 Ways to Foster Supportive Communities Among Women

  1. Be a mentor or sponsor to another woman. Mentors can provide guidance and support and serve as role models to emulate, and sponsors can influence others to help women find certain opportunities or even secure a position within the company. Studies show that sponsorships are crucial particularly for minority women, who often have limited opportunities for advancement.
  2. Work as a team. Building a network among your peers ensures that you have a strong support system and that your colleagues are supported as well. Together you can work to spot bullying and prevent it.
  3. Give a shout-out to a peer. In her TedTalk, LaunchCode’s program director Crystal Martin shares her frustrations of being silenced, talked over, or ignored at work by male colleagues. She argues that women can and should support each other in the workplace by acknowledging each other’s ideas and accomplishments to other colleagues, therefore setting the stage for them to be recognized for their work. Women can also support each other by thanking the women who have helped them in the past. Recognition goes a long way, particularly in male-dominated fields. And paying it forward always helps, too. 

It seems, then, that the role of “atta girls” shouldn’t be downplayed. Most everyone wants to be acknowledged for hard work and a job well done, and if it encourages camaraderie and discourages antagonism, why wouldn’t we hand out praise freely and generously to each other?

Case in point: a friend of mine who’s a nurse recently told me about a co-worker who had been undermining her at work. Apparently, this co-worker had a history of causing problems for other nurses. Before she could handle it through the proper channels, my friend found out that this woman had already made a complaint against her. Thankfully, my friend’s boss knew she was a hard worker, and reassured her that the complaint wouldn’t affect her performance review. 

Still, over the next month, my friend noticed her self-confidence plummeting. Her work started to suffer, and she found herself losing focus to the point that she felt it might jeopardize her ability to care for her patients. She grew depressed and seriously considered quitting altogether. But then one day, a nurse’s aide came to her, and expressed her admiration of her nursing skills. The aide, who had assisted her on several shifts, said she had learned so much from my friend, and thanked her for her help. The effect was almost immediate. It was just the boost to my friend’s self-esteem she needed to snap her out of her funk and make her realize that one bully didn’t determine her worth. 

For nurses, who have arguably one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the world, encouraging one another to succeed would mean a safer, more supportive work environment not only for themselves, but also for their patients. 

For all women in every industry, respecting and supporting each other creates an environment where women can succeed in the workplace and businesses fan fully thrive.


Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.


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