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The Key To Conducting A Complaint About Incivility and Bullying  

The way you investigate an allegation of bullying behavior must be standardized from the beginning and strictly based on the facts. Here are the key elements to do it right …

L.I.S.T.E.N.: The Key To Investigating Incivility and Bullying

It’s Monday morning. As you walk toward your office you are met with an unhappy surgeon who tells you about an incident of alleged incivility between two on-call staff nurses that occurred in his OR over the weekend. According to the surgeon, the behavior between the two nurses was disruptive to the procedure and the entire team.

You understand how unhealthy working relationships in the perioperative setting can impact the safety and quality of the service you provide, and you know that you have to investigate this issue and come up with an action plan, but where to begin?

The haunting question for every nurse leader beginning to shape a response to an incident of incivility or bullying is how to start the process to actually get the facts around the situation so a solid action plan can be developed.


I advise following my acronym L.I.S.T.E.N. to guide the steps for investigating allegations of incivility or bullying:

L = Lean Into the situation

Any allegation of incivility or bullying can make people uncomfortable because the scenario surrounding the incident was likely emotionally heated and extremely subjective—a situation any person may want to instinctually back away from. However, a nurse executive handling this type of situation must commit to doing the best job possible of objectively getting to the root of the incident. Remember that time clouds recall, it is vital that the situation is dealt with swiftly.

I = Insight is the goal. Refrain from judgment

The goal of the investigation is to gain all the facts, including the facts leading up to the incident, during the incident, and immediately after. You must stay curious and not succumb to making any snap judgments that could influence your conclusion. Keep asking questions of anyone who may have witnessed or been involved in the incident so you can get a 360o view of the situation without allowing your bias to influence the investigation—this is especially important if any of the individuals involved have a history of problematic behavior.

S = Solving the reason is not your job

It is important to understand that solving the reason for the behavior displayed is not your job. A nurse leader may tend to get this wrong sometimes because, as a professional caregiver, the first instinct may be to fix the situation by wanting to care for those involved or look to yourself for how you could have prevented the situation from occurring.

Remember that solving the underlying causes of an individual’s behavior is not your job. Instead, your role is to stay focused on your referral for the plan of correction with a set timeframe and then hold that person accountable to achieve the agreed-upon performance improvement steps.

T = Take notes

It is very important to take detailed notes with direct quotations from people directly in your investigative process because people will paraphrase with time and there may be key things said during your investigation that you want to document so you are not asked to recall what was said later on. You will definitely want to refer to your detailed notes as an impartial investigator if the incident escalates to legal action. Taking notes helps you stay objective and limit the chance for subjectivity to be used against the process.

E = Engage human resources early

As soon as possible, within the limitations of immediately responding to an incident, get human resources engaged in the investigation. Invite them to be part of investigative interviews and, for those organizations with collective bargaining, discuss the possible need for a delegate to be involved in the investigative interviews. You want to be sure your investigation is complete and airtight.

N = Never share an opinion during the investigation.

During your investigation, a participant may ask you a question about how you would have acted in their shoes, but don’t be pulled in this way. Remind all parties that you were not involved and you are the person asking the questions. This gets back to staying curious and remembering that you are working to understand all circumstances related to the incident.

Another helpful acronym: W.A.I.T. (Why am I talking?) can help nurse leaders refrain from interjecting with an opinion during the investigation. Remember that you are the one gathering information, all of the information. Making the mistake of offering an opinion will likely come back to haunt you.


Following L.I.S.T.E.N. to investigate incivility or bullying can help anchor your reputation with your staff and with colleagues such as those in human resources who can see you as someone who is fair, thorough, patient, and non-judgmental until all the facts have been determined.

When you are offering the results of your investigation, following this guide for your process can help you to say with truth and confidence that ‘the facts have spoken for themselves’ so that actions determined to address the incident are based on these facts you have gathered.  Making sure your investigation is standardized and built on the facts will help the staff members involved in the incident to appropriately address their behavior and possibly seek help in managing their behavior.

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