Healthy Workforce

A Clear Case of Hazing

While bullying is about exclusion, hazing is a form of group initiation

Tina and Jack are both new graduate nurses in their first nursing job on the med-surg unit. Tina’s preceptor, Della, is consistently hard on Tina, often ordering her to perform tasks that make her uncomfortable and castigating her for any mistake. If Tina expresses discomfort with this harsh treatment, Della gives her disapproving looks and wonders aloud if Tina “has what it takes” to be a nurse.

Curiously, Della seems to be very kind to most of the other nurses — except the new grads. Jack reports receiving similarly rough treatment. When he sees Della in the hall, she often makes remarks like, “You okay? You remind me of other nurses who didn’t make it.”  It makes Jack grateful that his own preceptor is a patient, supportive teacher.

Needless to say, Tina finds this situation very stressful, leaving her wondering if she made the right choice in becoming a nurse. Is Tina being hazed?

We’ve all heard the truism, “Nurses eat their young.” For every nurse who wants to support and nurture new grads, it sometimes seems that there are two others who are eager to tear the newcomers down. Too many experienced RNs still believe that subjecting new nurses to jeering or abuse is normal or even beneficial.We’ve all heard the truism, “Nurses eat their young.”

For every nurse who wants to support and nurture new grads, it sometimes seems that there are two others who are eager to tear the newcomers down. Too many experienced RNs still believe that subjecting new nurses to jeering or abuse is normal or even beneficial. Such treatment is called hazing. We most commonly think of hazing in connection with college fraternities or military boot camps, but it’s a very common occurrence in the professional world, including in nursing units across the country. One recent study suggests that at least one in four workplaces practices some form of new employee hazing.

What Is Hazing?

While bullying is about excluding people from a group, hazing is a form of group initiation.

Hazing is:

  1. Directed exclusively at newcomers (such as new grad nurses or nurses who’ve recently joined the unit), and:
  2. Intended as an initiation that newcomers must endure before being accepted as part of the group, and:
  3. Harmful, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. In some groups, hazing may include physical assault or ritual humiliation. When it comes to nursing, many common forms of hazing are harder to spot except as a pattern of behavior. For example, most nurses have to perform unpleasant chores from time to time, but a unit tradition of consistently saddling newcomers with the worst assignments might constitute hazing, especially if those unpleasant chores are punctuated with verbal abuse or remarks like, “I wanted to see if you could take it,” or, “You have to just jump in feet first.”

Being “Tough Enough”

If you believe the common misconception that being tough on new nurses will somehow make them stronger and more resilient, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong: Research shows that being unnecessarily tough on someone while they are learning causes them to be less confident in their skills.

Adverse effects of hazing on a new nurse can include:

  • Mental and emotional stress
  • Sense of powerlessness
  • Difficulty in establishing positive, professional relationships with other nurses on the unit
  • Loss of respect for nurses and the profession as a whole
  • Lack of trust within the nursing unit and organization.

Also, even hazing activities that might seem like harmless fun — like assigning newcomers mocking nicknames or forcing them to take tequila shots at the local bar after work — may violate policy and leave the hospital open to lawsuits for creating a hostile work environment.

Hiring Now

Speaking Up

Let’s go back to the scenario with Tina, Jack and Della. Della’s behavior fits the definition of hazing: Her hostility is aimed specifically at the new nurses and her remarks indicate that she thinks she’s either testing their mettle or trying to toughen them up. As for it being harmful, Della’s toxicity is causing distress not only to Tina, but also to Jack — and Della isn’t even Jack’s preceptor!

Tina is being hazed and she should speak up. She could first try addressing the problem with Della using scripts like these:

“I know you think you’re helping me by being hard on me, but what I need is your support until I gain the confidence and skills you have. Will you do that for me?”

“Right now, I’m learning. For me to learn as much as I can to safely care for our patients the way you do, I need your support.”

If that doesn’t convince Della to change her tune, Tina should talk to her manager or human resources about finding another preceptor. Fortunately, it appears not all the unit’s preceptors share Della’s bad attitude.

Breaking the Cycle

Sadly, some people still view hazing as a rite of passage. Nurses who were hazed when they were new may go on to give the next generation the same treatment.  The more entrenched hazing becomes as a workplace tradition, the easier it is for other employees (even those who don’t participate) to rationalize the practice, saying, “That’s just the way it is. I survived it when I was new, so it can’t be that big a deal.”

If you’re hard on new nurses because you think you’re helping them, STOP IT! Your intentions might be good, but if you really want to help new nurses grow and develop, you need to nurture them, support them and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to become great.  That’s also the best way to ensure that they will do the same for the generations of nurses who’ll come after them.


Renee Thompson, RN, DNP, CMSRN, CSP, is a speaker, author, consultant and founder of The Healthy Workforce Institute –  www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com. Her new book is Enough! Eradicate Bullying and Incivility in Healthcare: Strategies for Front Line Leaders.

Illustration by Jasmin Mora –  www.jasminmora.com


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