News & Insights

Respectful WorkplaceOctober 10, 2011by Stanton LawWorkplace Bullies: Asking for Trouble

Raise your hand if you’re an abusive boss.

Raise your hand if you’ve had an abusive boss.

If my experience holds, a lot more hands went up in response to the second question than the first. I’ve found that the reason for this disparity is two-fold. First, one obnoxious manager can wreak havoc on the lives of several subordinates. Second, very few folks believe—or are willing to admit—that they’re a bully. But workplace bullies obviously exist and probably exist in your organization.

Should you care? I think you should, and your employees who have to work for an a**hole probably hope you do, too.

“Not illegal” ≠ “Advisable”

Being a jerk is not, in and of itself, unlawful. While the law clearly prohibits abusive behaviors that target certain protected characteristics, only a few jurisdictions have passed anti-workplace bullying statutes. Neither the federal government nor the majority of states has attempted to regulate merely indelicate behavior. In fact, the “equal opportunity offender” defense (i.e. the problem supervisor similarly affronts all races, gender, religions, ages, etc.) can actually help an employer, in some circumstances, avoid liability.

But simply because the law does not expressly prohibit bullying, my advice remains that you should address the problem as soon as you become aware of it.

No one likes to work with, or for, a bully, especially good employees. You’ll eventually lose your top talent if you force them to work with a tyrant. And even before they leave, they’ll also lose respect for you for failing to address the issue.

Moreover, angry people sue. And folks who don’t believe that they’re being shown the proper respect by a bully get angry. Even if the angry guy doesn’t eventually win his suit, the suit itself will cause enough disruption and expense that no matter how uncomfortable it would have been for you to confront the bully, you’ll wish you had.

It’s also likely that an abusive employee or supervisor will eventually cross the line and engage in behavior that goes beyond offending to breaking the law. If you don’t establish right away that his behavior is unacceptable, you’re whistling past the graveyard until his issues escalate from HR headaches to legal ones.

Take a direct approach

The line between a demanding supervisor and an abusive one often depends upon your perspective. Your office is not, and should not be, a self-esteem workshop, and sometimes your most effective managers have to break some eggs to make an omelet. I’m assuming you don’t pay them to give hugs.

But when you get wind of an employee who is rubbing folks the wrong way, it deserves your prompt attention. Watch the person for yourself and ask another employee that you trust for their candid opinion. You’ll quickly get a sense for whether there’s a problem or not.

And if there is, get on it. In most cases, a firm verbal counseling (followed, of course, with a memo to their file) will correct the issue. It’s likely the employee is not aware that others perceive him as so abrasive. But as with any disciplinary issue, additional correction, including termination, may be necessary.