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How to handle the ‘bully doctor’ without losing your temper or your job

A growing concern in all types of professional offices is the bully boss.

“Bullying is the issue for this decade that sexual harassment was in the 1980s,” says Rachel Schaming, a business and leadership coach based in Tucson, AZ.

In a physician practice, the issue is especially difficult, because the bully is often a senior doctor. As a result, staff don’t want to mention the issue for fear of losing their jobs, and the other doctors don’t want the confrontation or the potential loss of patients. So the bullies carry on.

It’s not even uncommon for employers to give “hazardous duty pay” to coax people “to tolerate the pummeling they’re getting,” Schaming says.

The four categories of bullying

By definition, bullying is “repeated inappropriate behavior against another person.” And there are four types.

1 First is verbal bullying. This is rude remarks, ridicule, name calling, insults, and making the victim or even the victim’s family the butt of offensive jokes.

2 Second is gesture bullying. Included here are things such as eye rolling, huffing, leering, or staring at somebody to make the person feel threatened.

3 Third is exclusion. The bully purposely excludes the victim from work-related activities.

4 And fourth is physical bullying such as poking, shoving, and tripping. It also includes damaging the victim’s work area or equipment.

The portrait of the bully

Almost always, the bully is somebody in a high position and the target is somebody in a lesser role.

It can be an owner physician targeting a physician employee or a supervisor targeting a staffer. But the target is dependent on the bully for something such as raises or bonuses or interesting work.

There can be name calling, yelling, and subtle threats such as “you’re on thin ice with me.”

There can also be glaring in an effort to make the victim uncomfortable. Or the bully may stand too close to the victim so as to violate personal space.

All that wears people down. Their performance declines. They start missing work. Some people become withdrawn and timid and lose concentration.

What’s the bully truly like?

Beneath the bravado is a tremendous amount of fear, Schaming says. And most of the time, the fear has to do with competence. The bully is afraid of not measuring up – as a person or as a physician or as a partner in the practice.

Don’t confuse a bully with a tough boss, she notes.

The tough boss has high expectations and demands top performance and high quality work. By contrast, the bully demeans and embarrasses people and makes them feel they are the cause of every problem that crops up.

One more policy to write

Bullying calls for yet another policy.

It needs to say the office won’t tolerate bullying. And it needs to carry discipline, including termination. It needs to define bullying and lay out the four types with examples of unacceptable behaviors such as constantly criticizing someone or constantly interrupting someone during meetings.

Schaming adds that while physical bullying doesn’t happen often in a professional office, it’s not an impossibility, so cover that as well.

Gather the facts – anonymously

What should the manager do when someone complains of bullying?

Collect the facts. Ask questions such as What it is it like to work with this person? What are some examples of the bullying? Has anybody witnessed the incidents you’re describing? Do you know if anybody else is experiencing this?

Then write a synopsis of the discussion. Schaming recommends setting out the incidents according to which of the four categories applies, and for each one tell what happened, when, and if there were witnesses.

Don’t identify the person making the complaint, however. Bullying carries a “paralyzing fear” of losing a job, she says, so unless complaints can be made anonymously, people won’t report it. And perhaps because of that fear, the person who reports it is often not the victim at all but somebody who has witnessed it often enough to be concerned about it.

Not a job for the manager

Now to beard the bully.

That’s one job the manager should not do, Schaming warns. If the bully is a senior physician, the manager can become the next target or even lose his or her job.

The manager’s responsibility is only to bring the matter to the attention of a trusted physician, preferably the managing physician. No more.

Present the information, explain the impact on the office in terms of turnover, absenteeism or lost productivity, and offer some solutions. Then back off.

For the physician doing the confronting, she recommends approaching the bully in terms of “we are having too many complaints about this.”

Then paint the picture of what’s going on. Say “here is the problem at hand” followed by “here are examples” followed by “here are the possible consequences – losing a quality employee, etc.”

Be tactful. Don’t mention every infraction. Just cite the most egregious examples.

And to keep the meeting from turning into a fight, recognize along the way the contributions the physician has made to the practice.

Then say “I know we can work through these things” followed by “what do you see as the next steps that you need to take?” Often that opens a conversation. It’s not unknown for the response to be “I had no idea,” and the issue is solved right there.

On the other hand, if the conversation is fruitless, put some teeth into it with something such as “failure to deal with this means you won’t get your bonus.”

Editor’s picks:

Model Policy: Workplace bullying

Model Tool: Checklist of steps to take when conducting an investigation

Outsmarting Workplace Bullies: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge









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