Nursing Law – Labelling a Colleague Incompetent

Nursing Law – Labelling a Colleague Incompetent

Labelling a colleague incompetent, what are the consequences?

I have written often about bullying in nursing, it is I believe, a serious problem.  There are research studies looking at the issue and there are clear and agreed consequences to the victims of bullying even if the term itself is contentious.  I was wondering just how we would categorise a situation where a nurse claims another nurse is incompetent based on an observed knowledge or skill deficit?

We see this often, I certainly hear it often.  Is it bullying?  There is no doubt it is a form of aggression but how really can we be sure we are dealing with a “bad” nurse rather than a situation of frustration or personal dislike.  The reason it is important to actually know this, is the fact that such a label can destroy a career and there is a wealth of data out there about new graduates and “negatively labelled” nurses leaving the job after years of investment in gaining their credentials.

We are required as professionals to protect our patients and ensure we and our colleagues are competent and safe practitioners.  This by definition requires judgements to be made.  Are those judgements objective? Did the circumstances get examined and was time taken to get “both sides” of the situation to establish just why or what the failure was?

If we work with someone who lacks knowledge our professional obligation is to meet our own competency requirements and educate the inexperienced or uninformed nurse.  How often have you heard someone respond to a question with a look of (sometimes feigned) amazement with “you don’t know how to… what do you mean you never heard of…  True working with a team member who requires education can be a trial.  We can all be frustrated by the extra burden this causes on a busy ward.   We often forget that our knowledge has been increased by experience and years of almost unconscious learning on the job so when we are busy and overworked it is hard to find consideration and time for someone we feel should be up to scratch.

When we claim someone is incompetent it is important to realise if they hold registration or enrolment credentials they have in fact been educated and tested against the national competencies and found to be satisfactory.  Often it is a skill or knowledge deficit a situation requires that was not part of their education, it is something to be learnt on the job.  That puts the obligation to establish if the nurse has the requisite knowledge (even if you think they should have) then demonstrate, explain, teach and assess them to ensure they can undertake the duty.

Simply labelling someone incompetent without you first fulfilling your own professional standards could rebound on you in turn being judged negatively.

There are some fabulous webinar recordings by Pam Savage regarding Nurses and the Law on theNurses for Nurses Network. The  Nurses for Nurses Network provides good information and CPD  on an array of nursing topics in a range of easy learning ways including webinars and quizzes on the latest information that Nurses need to know – remember the Nurses for Nurses Network was created by Australian Nurses for Nurses!

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Not happy.. at 9:45 am

    WHERE IS THE LINE? If a colleague has a necessary knowledge deficit, or in fact the facility lacks teaching support, a time of low activity can be utilised specifically to teach necessary skills.
    if the knowledge deficit has been revealed in a high and busy time, the nurse can be helped in their situation, but promised to amend the knowledge when time permits.
    This is the way I try to help nurses learning their craft.
    However, I have long worked in an acute care area, which has many critical situations, I wonder what are the legal ramifications of a registered nurse teaching acute care skills to enrolled nurses, or indeed to students? I find there is a trend in employing enrolled nurses in acute care settings, without any guidelines as to their role, is the registered nurse with ALS skills then culpable for the activities or supervision of the enrolled nurse.
    Where is the Line?

    • Pam Savage at 11:10 am

      Hi you make some really good points and I admire your way of meeting learning needs for colleagues in your environment; quiet time education and busy time support will while it may be a bit draining on the experienced nurse ensure standards are met and patient safety is prioritised.
      However yes, there are issues and risks in situations where less experienced nurses are allocated to acute care situations. The responsibility lies with the person who delegated duties. Now in a crisis situation I appreciate that could be a big expectation BUT in law the question would be “was it reasonable in the circumstances” so the delegation could be seen as the only option at the time. In general when allocations and duties are distributed the person delegating has a responsibility to ensure the one given responsibilities is educated, capable and competent. If asked “can you do…” and they say yes then they become personally, professionally accountable for their actions. In crisis where unanticipated or new situations arise of course that could be difficult. Yet the facility has an obligation to ensure staff are capable and if experience or knowledge is lacking, to ensure education and supervision is provided. EN’s have a scope of practice as do RN’s. Duties (not necessarily every task) should be clearly understood. EN’s are competent to do nearly all the nursing skills/tasks IF they have had the opportunity, like a new grad,, like a newly employed RN to gain specialty skills. ENs can not assesses and plan care. The RN can not delegate that responsibility. I know it can be stressful, especially when on top of your own duties and in a high risk environment you also take on the job of teaching and supervising and that should be negotiated with your managers if they are placing staff who lack the experience and preparation to work there, you will always, as a nurse know something a colleague doesn’t just as they will know something you don’t, but just making a sweeping statement someone is incompetent because they do not know or have experience is to be avoided. Pam

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