Blog » How (Not) to Help a Bullied Colleague

How (Not) to Help a Bullied Colleague

Created Jul 10 2017, 08:00 PM by Lippincott Solutions
  • horizontal violence
  • nurse bullying
  • healthy work environments
  • American Nurses Association
  • ANA

Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Recent survey indicates most common advice for bullying victims is unhelpful and can worsen the situation.

It’s a well-known fact that workplace bullying is widespread in nursing. “Incivility and bullying in nursing is prevalent in all settings,” the American Nurses Association (ANA) explains on its webpage dedicated to the issue.  Nearly half of all nurses are concerned about becoming victims of bullying, according to a recent article, and 39% personally know nurses who were bullied.

How can you help a colleague experiencing bullying?  For starters, you might want to watch what you say.

A new study suggests most advice shared with victims of workplace bullying is unhelpful, impractical and may even worsen the situation. Yet, in an interesting twist, the study also found that even after receiving the poor advice and deeming it nonviable, bullied employees said they would offer the same advice to others.


What are these not-so-helpful yet too-irresistible-not-to-pass-on pearls of wisdom? 

  • Quit your job or get out of the situation – heard by 27% of bullying targets
  • Ignore the bullying or blow it off – heard by 23%
  • Fight or stand up to the bully – 17%
  • Stay calm – 10%
  • Report the bullying – 10%

(This didn’t make it in the official Top 5 recommendations above, but other advice received by a small percentage of the 48 bullying targets surveyed for the study was:  “punch the bully” or “quit making things up.”)

This seems like a good place to point out that the study, which appeared in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, did not focus exclusively on nurses who were bullied but on workers in a range of professions who experienced horizontal violence. But since the nursing profession admittedly struggles with workplace bullying, learning how to effectively support victimized colleagues is not only relevant but also essential for healthy work environments for nurses.


At face value, the oft-uttered advice may seem legit. But for many workers, simply leaving a job to alleviate bullying is unfair to targets who enjoy their work and unfeasible for people who enjoy paying their bills. Staying put and ignoring the bully, researchers reported, rarely improved the situation.

Confronting the bully ignited fears of retaliation or further humiliation, targets told researchers. And telling an upset target of bullying to stay calm and not cry? Don’t. Even.

 “To me it would be abnormal for someone to be treated in this way and have no emotional reaction,” said researcher Stacy Tye-Williams, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies and English at Iowa State University.  “Telling victims to calm down does a lot of damage. When we’re talking about traumatic work experiences, it’s important to allow people to have a space to express their very normal emotions.”

Unfortunately, reporting bullying didn’t work in many cases because managers expected employees to work out issues on their own. Dr. Tye-Williams described the view as an unreasonable one that is more driven by a feeling of helplessness rather than blame.

 “Management is not always good about helping people navigate a conflict to reach a resolution. They don’t want to get involved, they expect employees to figure it out or that it’ll blow over,” she said. “It’s not that managers don’t want to be helpful, they often just don’t know how to be helpful.”


Helplessness in the face of bullying is an understandable reaction to a complex situation. Targets, colleagues and higher-ups are attempting to figure out a rational, logical response to an irrational situation, Dr. Tye-Williams explained. That’s likely the reason why many of the bullied employees in the study said they’d give the same advice to others, even though they didn’t consider it helpful for themselves.

What does work?

  • Open dialogue that allows people to share what has worked for them.
  • Brainstorming different or creative solutions.
  • Disseminating stories in which targets of bullying successfully managed the situation.

“The best thing family members, friends and colleagues can do is to simply listen without judgment to help targets work through available options,” advised a press release about the study.

Let’s start here. Have you been a target of workplace bullying? If so, how did you successfully handle it? Share your stories with other nurses to let them know they’re not alone and to provide some much-needed direction on potential strategies for managing horizontal violence in nursing.