Verbal Bullying and Abuse by Physician


I work with a physician. I am a co worker not a nurse. My hospital nor my company has done anything. He is very verbally abusive in front of staff and patients. Every nurse he has had has quit. He is very rude, disrespectful and demeaning in tone and language used. I have remained respectful, I am a Christian and I feel strongly about continuing to be a example to other workers. Although it is making me physically sick and my family suffers, I love my job. This doctor is hateful on every text, phone call and in person ever time which is daily, it has been years if I didn’t love my patients and know God was helping my patients through me I couldn’t have held on this long. But I can no longer continue this physician is so consistent it has broken my physical body down and I am over stressed all the time.

Please help me with what to do. I’m not afraid of him just I just want to stop this from continuing. He acts superior and embarrases me in front of staff and patients constantly. Can I do anything? How can I prove he has crossed the line? What rights do I have? Do I have to have my job in jeopardy to do something?


Sick With the Stress


Dear Sick With the Stress:

It certainly sounds as though you are dealing with a miserable situation. However—and this is a big however—it sounds as though you have very conflicting feelings that tell you to endure it for the sake of patients. I would assume that patients have come and gone but you stay on. Further, while your Faith is valid and worthy of being a life-focus, it doesn’t sound as though you have used it to help you stay strong in adversity. I say that with sincere appreciation for both your faith and your situation, but I would be remiss to just ignore that aspect of it. Perhaps there is a person in your faith to whom you could speak, to get a perspective about this matter.

As for what you can do and what your rights are: You have several options, but all require you to start strong and stick with what will undoubtedly be unpleasant. Nevertheless, I think it would be worthwhile, if the doctor is as bad as you say.

1. You could start by saying something to the doctor about his rudeness and hurtful remarks, if you haven’t done so lately or if you have never done so. You say you are a coworker not a nurse, so I assume you have status at his level. Thus, you don’t need to feel he will get you fired if you request courteous treatment. (I don’t think that would happen anyway, but often subordinates are afraid of that.). HR people frequently ask a coworker/complainant, “Have you ever told the person that you feel he is being demeaning or rude?” When the answer is no, they will often advise the complaining employee to say something directly and ask for more courteous treatment.

That doesn’t mean a long conversation about it. If you have never, ever said anything to him, maybe you could just say, “Paul! I don’t know if you realize how that sounds, but it’s very hurtful.” Or, if you have talked to him already, “Paul! I’ve told you about this before. Do not use that tone to me again. I don’t like it. It’s inappropriate and completely unprofessional. Stop it.”

Or, to be very conciliatory, “Paul, I’ve tried to take your remarks and just move on, but I can’t anymore. Please stop treating me this way.”

If he is oblivious to his discourtesies, he may be unaware that you have felt so badly all this time. He certainly should be aware, but at least he could say he wasn’t aware because you never said anything to him. A remark like that would only take you five seconds and it would be out in the open.

Having said all of that, let me add that I don’t expect that would help much anyway. When someone has been mean or caustic for years it is probably habitual and they may not think it matters or they may simply not care. I recently spoke to someone who had that reputation and she said, “Good. I’m glad what I’m saying gets to her. Someone needs to be telling her that her lateness and bad performance isn’t acceptable and it sounds like I’m the only one willing to do it.” She was right about the employee’s bad behavior and performance, but wrong about how she handled it for months, without success.

If it were me, I would take him on verbally and tell him in strong terms to stop it right now and I’d do that every time he started it. After awhile people like that start to back down because they don’t like having others hear them chastised when they know they were being rude and won’t get any support. But, I also realize that isn’t easy for most people to do, especially if you feel intimidated by him or if you have a work culture where you are expected to be subservient to the doctors.

2. Consider consulting an attorney about the matter, if you think you could win a civil case about emotional and physical damage caused by bullying or hostile work environment based on gender. Most attorneys will provide a free consultation to decide it there is a case and if they want to represent you. I suggest you consider that route, since an attorney will handle the tough parts that might be difficult for you to take on if you tend to be non-aggressive about such things. As I said, a consultation is nearly always free and at least you would know where you stand.

Keep this in mind: Such a civil suit is filed against the hospital, not against the doctor. So, you’ll have to show that the hospital management knew of his actions, knew the results and failed to take action. You’ll need documentation of those things. If you don’t want to sue the hospital or don’t think you could be successful at this point, maybe you could get help, for a small fee, about how to better make a complaint to the Human Resources section of your hospital and make it stick.

3. If you decide not to do that and instead want to go to the HR section on your own, you need to do more than say you want to make a complaint. Their investigation may not be thorough or they may not take the matter seriously. If you present them with a written package to begin with, you will have a better chance of them realizing the seriousness of the matter.

*Gather evidence. Save text messages and also put them in written form. Have someone witness the messages right away, when possible. Transcribe conversations as closely as you can remember them and list witnesses as well as accurate dates and times.

*Include what led up to the conversations or remarks and what you said. My experience has been that these transcripts are far better received if they are in a dialogue format:

Jan, Dr. XX and I had just finished going over a patient’s chart and he gave two conflicting orders. I pointed out that the orders were in conflict and he got angry.

Dr. XX: Face it, Carol, you’re too stupid to figure anything out.

Me: That’s not true, I’m just confused by your instructions.

Jan: Yes, Dr. XX. We’re both confused.

Dr XX: (Yelling at us and having a vicious look on his face.) I’m finished talking to you both! Carol, why don’t you quit and get a $%#$@!! job serving burgers if you’re so %$%#@! stupid you can’t even figure out how to do a basic task? (He then got up and stalked out of the room, slamming the door.)

Jan and I talked about it for a few minutes, both of us near tears. Then, we went back to work, trying to forget the unpleasantness. This was the fourth rude conversation he had with me that day. For the rest of the day I felt sick to my stomach and had a terrible headache. I had to leave work early.

This dialogue has to be as verbatim as possible. It is very frustrating for HR people to read something like, “He then said extremely rude things that were so bad I don’t even want to repeat them.” Worse yet is to hear that, then finally find out that the words were not particularly rude but simply rude in the mind of the person hearing them. Or, that the remarks were angry because of some repeated error the person had made and he or she was being reprimanded about it.

*The next item in your documentation should be the effect all of this has had on you, your work and the patients. Again, be specific. You say it has broken your physical body down. If that is the case you will need to show how that is happening–sick time used, doctor’s visits, ulcers, or whatever it is that leads you to believe that. If patients have ever heard his rudeness, list who it was if you can recall.

*The third thing is to outline what you have tried to do about it. List who you have talked to and what they did. If they did nothing, say so. But also be honest about how insistent you were. Just hinting around or vaguely complaining may not have seemed to them to be a serious request for assistance. If you have written requests for help or written complaints, by all means include them in your package.

*Write a cover letter that says you are requesting an investigation for the purpose of stopping the meanness, bullying and discourtesy that continues to be part of Dr. Smith’s communications. Then, take the package to HR and tell them that you want to file a formal complaint. They will probably think you are considering suing anyway and that may get them to take it seriously.

4. Ask HR what you should do the next time he starts such conversations with you. Get them to advise you about it, so whatever you do you can say they advised it. I’ll bet they tell you to either get up and leave or to ask him to stop. Whatever they tell you, attempt to follow their instructions so you can say later that you did.

5. Consider this: If a woman came to your hospital and told you that her boyfriend treated her the way you say the doctor treats you, would you advise her to stick it out for a few more years to show her good heart and kind spirit? Or, would you tell her to get away from that situation and find one where she can be fulfilled and happy? Or, at the least, to tell him he has one more chance to show her that he can treat her with respect and after that, she’s leaving. Well, essentially that is what you’re dealing with. It may be that nothing will be done about the doctor. If his bad behavior is spread around it may be that you have no basis for a civil suit. It may be that he won’t listen when you ask him to stop. It may be that he is well liked by others or a brilliant physician who is more important to the hospital than you are. It may be that in spite of everything, the doctor will continue his actions. Then what?

I think you need to have that kind of contingency planning going on. How much longer can you endure and how much longer does your family want to hear about how bad things are and about the ill effects it has on you? Doesn’t it seem that it’s time to stop it or get out of it? You deserve to work in a better setting, if the hospital management allows this to continue. If the hospital takes action on your behalf, to censure the doctor or sanction him, you will have done something positive about the situation and many others will undoubtedly be grateful.

Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide and also let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.