Healthy Workforce

6 Ways New Nurses Can Stand Up to Bullying

Don’t become a victim of those who “eat their young”

New grad nurse with thought bubble of kind nurse at bedside

Wen was looking forward to a second career in nursing. She already had a biology degree and had spent six years working in a lab. While at the hospital with her mother, who was recovering from a stroke, Wen was deeply impressed by the nurses and decided to enroll in nursing school. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Wen started questioning her career decision. She had become the target of bullying and hazing from the nursing professionals she had once admired. Just nine months after starting her first nursing job, Wen quit and left the profession forever.


New nurses fear two things when they start their first job: that they’ll make a mistake and that the other nurses will eat them alive!

I’ve talked with many student and graduate nurses over the years, and I have been asked the same question again and again: “What do I do if the nurses are mean?”

Sadly, these newcomers to the profession have every reason to be worried. Bullying of new nurses is still all too common, and that incivility often starts the first day on the job.

First Day Blues

I once witnessed a new grad nurse arriving to start work at a small community hospital. The unit secretary, who didn’t smile or even acknowledge her presence, shouted to another nurse, “Hey, your baby nurse is here.” The other nurse looked up and declared, “Great,” in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

I still remember the crestfallen look on the new nurse’s face. What an awful way to start a job!

At a different hospital, four new grads recalled an experience they had during orientation week. When they got to their unit, two of the most seasoned nurses pointed their fingers at them and declared, “Listen here, bitches. You just took away our overtime.” Their treatment only got worse from there.

With behavior like this, it’s little wonder turnover for new nurses is high. A study published in Policy, Politics & Nursing Practice estimated that 17.5 percent of newly licensed RNs leave their first nursing job within the first year. One in three (33.5 percent) leave within two years.

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Taking a Stand

Even an experienced older nurse can become a target of bullying, but new nurses are the most vulnerable. Unfamiliar with the profession and its institutions, they may lack the confidence to stand up for themselves. Worse, they may assume that bullying behavior is normal and that there’s nothing they can do but bide their time and hope the bullies choose a different target.

If you’re in your first nursing position and find yourself on the receiving end of bullying from other nurses, you should know that this behavior is NOT normal or okay, and there are things you can do about it.

Here are six actions you can take:

  1. START A PAPER TRAIL. Documentation is a powerful weapon. Keep a record of any acts of bullying you experience, being sure to note the date and time, the names of the people involved (including any witnesses), and the details of each incident. You may have to do this retrospectively, but summarize the events as accurately and objectively as possible.To make your documentation especially effective, note any links between the behavior and patient safety, quality of care, or patient satisfaction concerns. Get a copy of your organization’s code of conduct or policies on disruptive behavior, which will help you identify behavior that violates policy or negatively impacts patients.
  2. CALL THE BEHAVIOR WHAT IT IS. Another powerful tool for responding to bullying, whether blatant or subtle, is to name it. Making clear to a bully that you know what they’re doing and that it’s unacceptable might be enough to convince them to back off, and it shows them that you won’t be an easy target.To be effective, you must describe specific, observable actions. For example, if you say to a bully, “You always give me the worst assignments,” they can always deny the charge. However, if you say, “For three shifts in a row, I’ve been assigned four patients while the other nurses on my shift have been assigned only three,” it’s harder for the bully to deny this fact — and if they do, you can document the truth.
  3. FILE A COMPLAINT WITH HUMAN RESOURCES. If your attempts to address the bullying directly don’t work, consider filing a formal complaint with an HR representative. This is where your documentation can really come in handy. Even if HR doesn’t take action, you’ll have a record that you reported the behavior.
  4. DEVELOP YOUR SKILLS. When you’re a relatively new nurse, being treated unkindly can undermine your confidence in your skills. Focusing on your own learning and growth will help to inoculate yourself against negativity in the work environment. The stronger YOU become — mentally, professionally, and emotionally — the better equipped you’ll be to ward off any potential bullies.
  5. FIND ALLIES. Nurses don’t ALL eat our young. There are plenty of nurses who love training and mentoring others, especially novices. Seek out supportive colleagues, spend time with them, and ask for help when you need it. You don’t have to suffer alone when there are allies ready and happy to help you succeed.
  6. REMEMBER THAT ONE PERSON STANDING UP TO A BULLY CAN INSPIRE OTHERS TO DO THE SAME. If you’re being mistreated at work, chances are that you’re not the only one. By standing up to a bully, you’ll show others that they can assert themselves too, and that cruelty doesn’t have to be tolerated.

There are many theories as to why nurses “eat their young,” but one reason the problem has persisted for so long is that we too often just grin and bear it. We assume it’s part of the hazing required to be accepted onto the team. This is not true!

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As a new nurse, you still have many things to learn, but tolerating bullies shouldn’t be one of them.

RENEE THOMPSON, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute ( Reach her at .

Jasmin Mora is a Los Angeles-based illustrator.

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