According to Bullying and Aggression in the Veterinary Profession, workplace bullying is common in medical fields, which includes veterinary practices. The author defines bulling as “any type of repetitive verbal or physical abuse that involves some type of power imbalance” (Lee 2013). She acknowledges that few veterinary-based bullying studies have been done, but cites disturbing statistics from those focusing on human medicine professionals:
- 88% of clinical care providers have teammates who gossip or participate in a team-dividing clique
- 55% work with someone who tries to look good at others’ expense
- 77% have coworkers who are condescending, insulting or rude
- 52% work with someone who abuses authority, and will “pull rank, bully, threaten, or force their own point of view.”[i]
Her ultimate conclusion to combat bullying in the veterinary field? Recognize it, don’t tolerate it. In fact, stand up against it. Supervisors, which includes practice managers, must be the first line of defense, addressing destructive behaviors before they damage the practice.
First make sure you’re not the culprit
Everyone can be blind to his or her own faults – and that includes veterinary practice managers. A 2014 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute discovered that 27 percent of workers have experience with abusive conduct at work, with supervisors serving as the main source of bullying behaviors. Even more dismaying, 72 percent say that their employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize and/or defend bullying.
No federal or state-level anti-bullying legislation currently exists in the United States, although if negative behaviors are significant enough to be considered threatening or intimidating, or if they create an environment full of hostility, the practice is in potential danger of a claim of constructive discharge or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Moreover, if a bullied employee relates his or her experience to protected class discrimination, this could cause significant problems for the practice. So, although no specific anti-bullying legislation currently exists, there is potential liability whenever an employer or supervisor permits bullying behaviors in the practice.
Simply focusing on the legal aspects of bullying discounts the destruction that these behaviors can cause. People who are bullied can suffer from significant emotional problems, including anxiety, depression, poor concentration, substance abuse and lowered self-esteem; physical disorders can also occur, such as gastrointestinal disorders, headaches and insomnia.
Damage to the practice can include increased turnover and absenteeism rates, increased health care costs, and lowered productivity and morale. Moreover, if a bullied employee retaliates, it can escalate to aggressive behaviors, even physical violence – and tolerating bullying behaviors precludes the possibility of treating all employees with respect and dignity.
Overall, bullying at work can involve these behaviors, the last two of which are bullying behaviors displayed by some supervisors:
- Demeaning others through intimidation and/or not giving them the credit they deserve
- Creating impossible-to-meet demands, including unreasonable deadlines, and/or regularly assigning more work than can reasonably be accomplished in a time period
- Limiting the amount of relevant information provided to employees and/or interfering with appropriate interaction among them
No two bullies act alike. Some are openly aggressive, using loud voices and intimidating body language, making demeaning comments. Others are passive aggressive and may use a soft voice, using implied criticisms, or “forgetting” to respond to important emails or otherwise assist others in the practice. Still others use cutting humor and then claim all was a joke if someone complains. A common comment made by the last group: “Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
Cyberbullying has become a significant issue in modern society and came to the forefront in the veterinary field in February 2014 when a veterinarian, Shirley Koshi, took her own life after dealing with significant online criticisms. Koshi had practiced for thirty-three years. The cyberbullying chain of events began when two people brought her a sick cat found in a nearby park. She treated this cat for two weeks before a woman claimed her as her own. The case ultimately went to court when Koshi refused to release the cat to the park where the woman claimed she kept him. Internet responses to the legal matter were sometimes brutal, with one person asking if Koshi was the worst vet of 2013, and other verbal attacks appearing on Koshi’s Facebook page and practice website (Smither).[ii]
No toleration policy
As practice manager, you are responsible for dealing with cyberbullying and more traditional forms alike. Steps to take include:
- Create an anti-bullying policy that specifically defines bullying and lists unacceptable The policy must also include methods for employees to report bullying behaviors along with an alternative method if the bully ends up being the reporting contact.
- Create methods to investigate complaints and to investigate when a complaint isn’t made but you suspect that bullying is taking place.
- The Society of Human Resource Management provides sample policies at http://www.shrm.org/templatestools/samples
- Consider having employees or a select group of them to help create the policy. This should form a more universal policy and assist in getting employee buy-in. It may also help to identify people who will resist attempts to clamp down on bullying behaviors.
- Communicate the policy to the entire staff. Include it in your employee manual and review it with everyone once a year.
- Consider management training courses if you note any bullying traits in your own behavior.
Take all claims seriously
Investigate claims and take firm corrective action whenever bullying behaviors are confirmed. Discipline can go as far as termination. If a certain department has higher-than-normal turnover, bullying may be playing a role and must be carefully observed, with inappropriate behaviors swiftly addressed.
As a practice manager, you will need to give feedback about job duties and deadlines; provide performance evaluations; discipline employees; and announce layoffs, promotions and the like – and, when done in a respectful manner, these actions do not constitute bullying, even if an employee does not like what is being communicated.
[i] Lee, Justine A., (September/October 2013), Bullying and Aggression in the Veterinary Profession, Veterinary Team Brief. Retrieved from http://www.veterinaryteambrief.com
[ii] Smither, Suzanne, (April 2014), A Disturbing Trend: Veterinary Cyberbullying, Veterinary Team Brief. Retrieved from http://www.veterinaryteambrief.com
 Lee, Justine A., (September/October 2013), Bullying and Aggression in the Veterinary Profession, Veterinary Team Brief. Retrieved from http://www.veterinaryteambrief.com
 Smither, Suzanne, (April 2014), A Disturbing Trend: Veterinary Cyberbullying, Veterinary Team Brief. Retrieved from http://www.veterinaryteambrief.com