Recognizing and Preventing Bullying in the Veterinary Workplace

Be proactive to prevent bullying in your workplace, and have a system in place where employees can easily report being bullied.

There are many ways a person can feel bullied, and none of them are good for a person’s self-esteem or productivity. This has ramifications for a veterinary practice environment, with effects on staff members and clients. iStock

Bullying has become an oft-discussed topic today. There are many ways a person can feel bullied, and none of them are good for a person’s self-esteem or productivity. This has ramifications for a veterinary practice environment, with effects on staff members and clients.

For a practice to implement the most effective treatments for our equine patients, it is important to have good teamwork in the workplace. All staff members should share a good rapport and demonstrate mutual respect. If even one staff member denigrates or under­mines another’s performance or philosophy, it transforms the work environment into a toxic atmosphere. This occurs not just for the person being bullied, but for others who might feel involved no matter how far they sit on the periphery.

Some victims of bullies find ways to withdraw and withhold what they are going through when bullied. Preventive strategies should be in place in every veterinary workplace. These preventive measures that curtail bullying behavior can go a long way toward fostering a productive and comfortable working environment that makes employees excited to get up in the morning and go to work.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is defined in various terms, including:

  • malicious verbal mistreatment of a person that is driven by the bully’s desire to control him or her;
  • continual and relentless attack on another person’s self confidence and self-esteem.

Bullies rely on intimidation, unwarranted criticism, negative peer pressure, blame without facts, and rumors to make the targeted person feel abused and powerless to do anything about it.

While in many cases a bullied individual might become withdrawn, others who undergo bullying lash out with aggression and anger. iStock

While in many cases a bullied individual might become withdrawn, others who undergo bullying lash out with aggression and anger. The withdrawn victim might not perform to optimum if distracted by concern over being attacked, or because he or she is simply unhappy with the working environment. The victim who turns aggressive might start to lash out at coworkers, clients and even family members, leading to a cycle of unhappiness at work and at home.

In either case, performance is likely to suffer, and negative feelings brought into the workplace also often impact a practice’s clientele. Additionally, the frustration and isolation that comes from being bullied contributes to professional burnout.

The Effects of Bullying

A 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey identified that 60% of workers felt affected by bullying. Other findings in that survey indicated that women tended to bully women (65%) more than men, although 70% of bullies are men. Superiors, supervisors and co-workers often exhibit bullying when they feel they are involved in a power struggle.

The survey findings further revealed that 46% of those bullied experienced an adverse effect on performance at work as well as a negative impact on their mental health. In addition, about one-quarter of the victims felt adverse physical effects. Being bullied induces stress, damages self-esteem, impairs cognitive function and adversely affects emotional and physical health, all of which can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress and potentially suicide.

Bullying in the workplace has other consequences for the entire practice, such as:

  • increased time the victim takes off from work, which affects efficiency of the practice;
  • increased staff turnover, which is expensive to the practice in terms of on-the-job training, as well as time involved in orienting a new employee to the practice;
  • decreased productivity and motivation by the victim and possibly other staff;
  • decreased morale in the general practice culture; and
  • impact on client service, as well as how well a veterinarian attends to his or her responsibilities of horse care.

About 20% of all workers leave their jobs because of being bullied. If it is the practice owner who is the active bully, there often isn’t much recourse other than to leave that employment situation.

Signs of Bullying

You might be the victim of a bully or you might be a bystander to this behavior. What signs should you be looking for, so you are sensitive to recognizing when this occurs? What can you and your practice do to prevent it?

Equine practitioners are well aware that what you transmit to a horse by your body language helps to shape the horse-human interaction. Horses are exquisitely sensitive to posture and expression, and they react accordingly.

It is not much different between people. A bully doesn’t even need to say anything verbally to express disdain for another person or to imply intimidation. This is done through body posture or aggressive eye contact and expressions. Staring, glaring, eye rolling or pushing into someone’s personal space are obvious non-verbal indications of bullying.

A more subtle sign of bullying relies on exclusion. While this might not look like bullying at first glance, when a person is pushed aside from the group, they are being excluded for a number of possible reasons. Exclusion is not always just about social interaction; it can also involve exclusion from information or opportunities. It is important to figure out who might have orchestrated exclusion of one member of the practice, if that is the case.

Verbal abuse is much easier to identify because of threatening or loud words, intimidation, malicious teasing even in a veiled form, humiliation, belittling, patronizing or undermining of credibility and performance. There are also instances where someone’s work is sabotaged to undermine others’ confidence in them. The underlying behavior is filled with disrespect, and in some cases, a bully’s overt contempt of the victim.

Social media bullying is a well-known phenomenon. Known as cyber bullying, it has far-reaching effects that exceed the boundaries of the workplace, carrying on well beyond working hours. The pervasiveness of cyber bullying is extremely damaging to the victim’s psyche.


One effective means of curtailing bullying in the workplace is to hold awareness training. Outline specifics to the team about what bullying entails. Encourage staff to report any adverse discourses and interactions they witness. Discourage gossip. Provide some examples of what might be deemed unacceptable behavior.

It is also important to point out what kinds of behavior are considered normal in the context of a work environment and are not perceived as bullying. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety lists a few examples of interactions that are not necessarily representative of bullying:

  • respectfully expressing differences of opinion;
  • giving constructive feedback and guidance about workplace issues; or
  • supervisory personnel undertaking management and direction of staff members to maximize and implement effective practice policies.

The veterinary practice should develop a policy about bullying so all staff members understand what it is and the consequences of behaving that way toward any member of the practice team.

It is important to advise potential victims of bullying about what they can do: confront the bully head-on and tell that person that his or her behavior is unacceptable, preferably with the boss or another staff member present; or bring the problem to the attention of someone who oversees human resource problems in the practice. One report stated that 29% of people who are bullied keep silent about it and don’t bring the situation to anyone’s attention. This is why is it important for the whole staff to be involved in preventing bullying.

Victims of bullying should be encouraged to document the occurrences by keeping journals about the incidences in which they feel bullied, including where, when, details of each event, and whether witnesses were present. Any written correspondence by the bully to the victim— such as emails, texts, letters, memos or faxes—should also be retained.

It works best if there is someone responsible and impartial who is available for a bullying victim to come to if they wish to file a claim against another staff member or boss. This impartial person could be an outside employee advocate.

This same independent person could also be the one to deal with delivering consequences to the offending employee. Hiring outside help with this can relieve stress and ensure that legalities are followed when handling these situations. It also ensures a more objective analysis of the situation. There should also be a no-retaliation clause that protects against retribution of the person reporting the bullying situation.

Other preventive strategies rely on positive measures, such as providing staff with more responsibility, commending outstanding efforts, and providing opportunities to improve skills and professional expertise. Rewarding good behavior and accomplishments often serves to positively alter any tendency for bad behavior.

If a bully is persistently toxic to the workplace culture, it is practical to try to find out why he or she is behaving this way. If there can be no resolution to the bully’s behavior, the most prudent action could be to suggest that the bully might be happier in a different employment situation. These one-on-one conversations should be documented in writing as to when the conversations occur, who is present and why, along with specifics as to the behavior reported and how the bully reacts to this criticism.

Take-Home Message

Veterinary medicine is a fulfilling profession. The same proactive health care needs to be applied to the veterinary practice culture so that everyone involved is engaged and happy to be in the service of the clients and horses.

Working together as a collaborative team helps to mitigate the stress incurred in the health care industry and can bring positive experiences and excitement to the workplace. Clients will feel it and will be glad to use your practice to care for their horses. Staff will feel it and be happy to work there, giving their best effort. The horses, too, will feel it through the positive care and attention lavished on them. After all, that’s the bottom line of why equine vets do what they do.

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