Healthy Workforce

Dealing with a Treacherous Coworker

When a bully is a “snake in the grass”

Nurse is getting scolded at by doctor about medical imaging, while another nurse smiles maliciously in the background

Katie, an experienced nurse new to the department, works with Doris, a unit veteran. While giving report at shift change, Doris tells Katie that it’s the day shift’s responsibility to take care of all early morning CT scans. Katie thanks Doris for letting her know, and begins leaving early a.m. CT scans for the day nurse, thinking this is standard procedure for their unit.

Soon after, however, Katie’s boss calls her in and reprimands her for “dumping” her work on the day shift. Worse, Katie learns that one of the complaints came from Doris, who deliberately sabotaged Katie by giving her false information and setting her up to fail.


While we often think of bullies as striking out through intimidation and verbal abuse, there’s also another type of bully that can be every bit as destructive. I call them “Viper Nurses” because they’re like a snake in the grass, thriving on secrecy. A Viper Nurse may be oh so friendly to your face, only to be unkind as soon as you turn around.

A Betrayal of Trust

Viper Nurses rely on building trust, making people feel secure so they’ll let their guard down. All the while, the bully is watching for weakness and waiting for the opportunity to strike.

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See if you recognize any of these behaviors.

◗ Turning secrets into gossip: If you privately reveal an anxiety or pet peeve to the Viper Nurse, before long, the whole department knows all about it. (Of course, the bully insists she would never betray a confidence.)

◗ Preying on fear: Are you intimidated by one of your colleagues? The Viper may try to convince you that person is out to get you, whether it’s true or not.

◗ Exploiting inexperience and naivete: Vipers sometimes set their sights on new RNs and new hires, because they don’t know any better and are grateful for any “friendly” advice.

The problem isn’t just that they are two-faced, but that this kind of behavior can have a corrosive effect on trust and confidence throughout the whole unit. (Imagine how Katie will react the next time a colleague offers a piece of friendly advice, even if it’s completely sincere!)

Defensive Strategies

Here are some tactics for protecting yourself from a Viper.

1. Recognize the signs.

Be aware of how they treat everyone on the unit. If you hear them gossiping, showing favoritism or undermining others, chances are they are doing it to you too. Don’t be paranoid, but be on the lookout for two-faced behavior.

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2. Seek confirmation.

Because these bullies try to lull you into a false sense of security, it’s wise not to take too much on faith, especially if you’re new and don’t yet know whom to trust. If a colleague gives you “helpful” advice, verify it first, ideally with someone in a position of authority. (If Katie had asked her manager about the CT scans, she would have quickly learned that Doris had given her the wrong information.)

3. Confront their covert behaviors.

Gather your facts and then name their behavior. Don’t worry about their response; they will probably make excuses or become defensive. The point is to make it clear that you won’t be “bitten” again. For example, after learning of Doris’s treachery, Katie could have gone to her and said, “Doris, help me understand why you said it was the day nurses’ job to do the morning CTs when our boss says that has always been the night shift’s responsibility.”

Much like a real snake in the grass, Viper Nurses are most dangerous to an unsuspecting victim. Once you know they’re there, it’s easier to stay out of their reach or defang them entirely, which will make a happier workplace for everyone.

RENEE THOMPSON, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute. As a speaker, author and consultant, her goal is to eradicate nurse bullying and incivility.


JASMIN MORA is a Los Angeles-based illustrator. Reach her at

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