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Senior executives and managers who repeatedly castigate employees in front of their peers – yelling or humiliating them for whatever reason in whatever venue – prove only one thing: they are not leaders, they are bullies.

Physicians, the leaders in clinical care, who yell, curse and denigrate colleagues, nurses or other workers, are no different.  Their clinical brilliance, or lack thereof, is no excuse.  The problem of abusive physicians is well documented, so is the practice of far too many hospitals whose executives will look the other way when the offending party is a big admitter who drives significant profits to the bottom line.

It does not matter if the performance of the bully’s target(s) is sub-par or whether the organization is in a turnaround crisis.  Physicians, executives and managers who employ all manner of lame excuses to justify their abusive behavior, are really just thugs masquerading as professionals. 

Boards or bosses who know that such behavior is occurring and allow it to continue for whatever rationalization, are no better than those who terrorize their employees. They act as if there are no consequences for tolerating such shameful actions. There are — political, legal and economic.

Lest you think that I am angry about a relatively small issue – especially in healthcare – think again.  Let’s be fair.  This is not a problem that is limited to healthcare.  This unacceptable behavior touches every industry, in every corner of our nation. It is more widespread that anyone wants to acknowledge.

In my role as an executive recruiter, I hear of these stories far too often.  In my more than 30 years of executive experience, I have seen bosses shred employees in meetings and justify it as honest dialog about accountability.  I have seen CFOs shove employees against the wall “to get their attention.”  I have heard story after story of executives who blame their own mistakes on those who report to them.  I have seen leaders and managers misuse subordinates for no other reason because they can.

When I see this type of contemptible behavior, I often wonder what the bully’s home life is like.  

Being the victim of bullying — emotional and verbal abuse — brings with it a special shame. The victims often feel isolated, afraid to seek help. Notifying or asking for support from the wrong person — the bully’s ally or just another enabler — may only aggravate the problem, especially if the bully’s boss or the board believes the perpetrator is essential to the success of the organization. They rarely are, but that is part of the delusion. 

For the victim, quitting is not always an option.

I know victims who have risked exposure and called the hospital’s compliance hotline because they simply could not take it anymore.  Some people have even tried notifying the Joint Commission because they did not trust the Chief Human Resource Officer to do the right thing or felt the internal process was compromised.  That failing is part of a larger story. When the chief of HR fails to investigate and protect, they are betraying the organization, themselves and their profession.  Being the HR advocate for an abused employee is not an optional job duty.

We are entering one of the most turbulent periods in the history of healthcare.  The impending challenges will require great leaders.  There is no place for bullies in the executive suite, as department managers or shift supervisors.  There never has been. 

© 2011 John Gregory Self