Pushing back on bullying in Sterile Processing

Recently, I was invited as a member of the perioperative leadership team to discuss the findings from a survey sent to all members of our perioperative team, which includes more than 200 staff members, to identify areas for improvement and determine whether bullying and incivility were issues they faced in the workplace. Respondents provided detailed responses to the questions and revealed an alarming statistic: nearly 60 percent of the perioperative team admitted that they experienced bullying and incivility on the job.

Our organization certainly is not alone. In fact, the Harvard Business Review surveyed more than 800 managers and employees across 17 different industries and found that after experiencing incivility or bullying:

  • 48% of employees intentionally decreased their work efforts;
  • 38% of employees intentionally decreased their quality of work;
  • 80% of employees lost work time worrying about the incident;
  • 63% of employees lost work time avoiding the offender;
  • 66% of employees indicated that their work performance suffered;
  • 78% of employees said their commitment to the organization declined; and
  • 12% of employees left their job.

Incivility in the workplace can rear its head as harsh or inappropriate words, nonverbal behavior, facial expressions or body language. Bullying, on the other hand, is a type of incivility that often entails repeated examples of malicious behavior, including deliberate threats, demeaning comments or profanity, and overbearing criticism and supervision. Exhibiting even a one such type of behavior can qualify as workplace bullying, and the outcome can be detrimental to the entire department.

Many SP departments (SPDs) experience employees who miss work, which then translates to diminished productivity and employee loyalty, and even depression, anxiety and a willingness to look for employment elsewhere—all of which can affect customer service, interdisciplinary relationships and, above all, patient outcomes. SP professionals play an essential role in safe, high-quality patient care and their daily responsibilities require full attention, focus and cooperation, and we must do better for ourselves, our teammates, and those we serve.

A notable outcome from of our organization’s town hall discussion to discuss the survey findings was the discovery that some employees noted that uncivil or negative comments occurred during important teaching moments. More specifically, some employees perceived the problem stemmed from a hard-lined, “learn this or move on” teaching approach that made some personnel to feel pressured and intimidated. Leaders must realize the importance of establishing realistic performance goals and expectations that build employees’ knowledge and skillsets in a positive way that is rooted in support, patience and positive teamwork.

Kick the bad behavior

All healthcare leaders, including those in the SPD, should aim to be visible, approachable, empathetic and supportive, and they must strive to understand their employees’ challenges. This may translate to lending assistance when possible and advising team members who are struggling how to access the employee assistance program and intervening whenever incivility or bullying is experienced. 

Every SP leader should spend more quality time among the department’s staff members to witness firsthand employee interactions and staff members’ day-to-day challenges. If harmful communication and negative interactions are seen (or anytime an employee expresses concern about bullying or incivility among SP teammates or healthcare customers), the leader must take action to explore the situation and identify unruly or disrespectful behavior that can cripple morale and deplete employee satisfaction. Above all, it’s about teaching and regularly reminding all members of the team demonstrating that incivility and bullying of any kind will never be tolerated. If an employee experiences bullying or incivility from a leader, they should take the issue to the next highest person in command (if a supervisor behaves in a bullying way, for example, the employee should share that with the departmental manager or director; if a manager or director bullies or is uncivil, the employee should take the issue to Human Resources).

Supervisors and managers should also routinely ask employees what’s on their mind and encourage them to speak up when a challenging issue with a co-worker or interdisciplinary customer arises. Of course, good leaders also keep a finger on the pulse of their departmental practices and workflow to ensure that employees have what they need to function effectively, safely, consistently and positively in the workplace. Most organization have a harassment and bullying policy, and all employees should receive a copy of the policy upon hiring—and departmental leaders should also speak with all employees, so they understand that any incidents of bullying or incivility could spur disciplinary action, including termination.


Incivility and bullying have no place in the SPD or any other healthcare department or setting. Any SP professional who personally witnesses bullying or uncivil acts or see it directed toward another employee should promptly address or report it. Allowing any individual, regardless of title or tenure, to continue their poor behavior only lends more power for them to continue.

Additionally, SP leaders must ensure that positive communication is experienced daily. If bullying, incivility or other damaging behaviors are identified, all SP leaders and staff members must work to eradicate it. This involves advocating for oneself and one’s co-workers, their collective departments, and their patients. When respect, dignity and support are shown, the department, its customers and the entire organization reaps the rewards. 

Tony Thurmond, CRCST, CIS, CHL, FCS, serves as Central Service Manager at Dayton Children’s Hospital. He is an HSPA Past-President and currently serves on the HSPA Board of Directors.