In a time of great competition in the post-pandemic healthcare marketplace, hospitals and other facilities are smart to find ways to differentiate themselves from the many choices consumers can access. We all vote with our feet and wallets when it comes to how we spend our healthcare dollars, and poor treatment at a hospital or clinic is a high likelihood that we’ll seek care elsewhere.

Likewise, employees also vote with their feet, and we can’t retain nurses when, despite special labels like Magnet, we allow bullying and other aberrant behaviors to thrive within a negative workplace culture.

Designations like Magnet status are ways healthcare organizations can demonstrate their striving for excellence. But what happens when an unhealthy or toxic organization hides behind something like a Magnet designation, ignoring systemic issues that fancy words, plaques, and awards won’t fix?

A Fox in the Magnet Henhouse

I recently spoke with a dedicated, well-educated, experienced, intelligent, and successful nurse who, up until earlier this year, worked for a Magnet facility somewhere in the U.S. The Magnet designation is designed to be a magnet for high-quality nurse clinicians, and this nurse is a person of great integrity and professionalism whom this employer was lucky to have on staff.

During her work on several hospital units, this individual was targeted by what we might call a “queen bully.” The bully nurse was highly experienced, had worked for the organization for many years, and was seen as a leader and an indispensable employee by the administration.

Tragically, the nurse I spoke with was psychologically traumatized by the bully and the other employees who colluded with her behavior. This nurse’s reports of being harassed were dismissed and ignored, and she eventually had to take a leave of absence to pursue psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress. Meanwhile, the bully kept her job and faced no consequences whatsoever.

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Based on her egregious bullying behavior, this nurse bully should have been fired years ago. Still, managers and executives were likely scared to death of her, and if a union was involved, firing her might have proven a highly challenging avenue they were hesitant to pursue. 

Sadly, this nurse was allowed to “rule the roost” for years as a frightening and controlling fox willingly set loose in the hen house, and the nurse whom I spoke with had been one of her main targets for months.

A bully can bring down the morale of an entire or multiple units. If bullies can thrive and spin their nasty webs throughout a facility or organization, the entire workplace ecosystem and culture can be poisoned.

Confronting the Shadows

In the final analysis, a Magnet designation doesn’t make an organization great. Magnet status is also not a magic bullet or blanket blessing from the authorities that deems a facility perfect and free from flaws.

Creating a just, civil, highly functional, and effective organization may be enhanced by designations or awards like Magnet status. Yet, the hard work of making a healthcare institution a safe and happy place to work doesn’t stop when the plaque goes on the wall.

When weeding out bad actors like bullies, the administration must have the will and the backbone to confront the issue head-on. Likewise, employees must feel safe to document and report such issues without fear of retaliation or having their complaints dismissed out of hand.

No matter if a bully is a great clinician with years of experience — there must be zero tolerance for aberrant behavior, and consequences must be swift, decisive, and universally applied.

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Every employee deserves to feel supported in doing their best work. They likewise need to be able to trust that they will be protected from those who would do them harm. No staff member should live in fear of bullying, discrimination, harassment, or any other type of negative treatment, and it is the responsibility of the organization to create a culture that affirms positivity and trust and rejects anything less than perfect civility and kindness.

The work of achieving Magnet status is a lovely ideal with very real-world applications when truly operationalized. However, every workplace has a shadow, and it is from confronting that shadow and cleansing the organization’s darkest corners that a more civil, functional, and effective institution arises.

Magnet status is something to reach for, but only in the context of the hard work it takes to create a workplace to be proud of that is safe for all who walk through its doors.

We’ll be at the 2023 ANCC National Magnet Conference® October 12-14 at the at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago, Illinois. Stop by booth #918. We look forward to seeing you there!

Keith Carlson
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