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Is it a personality conflict or discrimination? Let investigation guide your response

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Workplace Communication,Workplace Conflict

There are times when a supervisor and a subordinate simply can’t get along. Seldom does such a contentious relationship end well.

But just because a supervisor is harsh, unkind or even demeaning and condescending toward her subordinate doesn’t mean discrimination is a factor.

It’s important for HR to distinguish between a personality conflict and discrimination. The former is cause for concern because it is disruptive and counterproductive. But the latter must be dealt with immediately and firmly—because it’s illegal.

Take seriously every employee complaint and investigate. Ask yourself: Is the supervisor having trouble with one subordinate or several? If just one, discrimination may be an under­ly­ing motivation. But if several subordinates belonging to different pro­tected classes complain, you prob­ably have an equal-opportunity bully boss on your hands.

Come up with a solution based on the underlying motivation for the behavior. A personality conflict may merit transfer, mediation or more training for the supervisor, the em­­ployee or both. Discrimination merits more severe punishment, maybe even termination.

Recent case: Deloise Everett was an attorney for a Head Start program. Her relationship with super­visors was quite unpleasant. She filed frequent internal complaints and was also disciplined regularly for taking unauthorized leave and other offenses.

Things got worse after Everett got a new supervisor. The two really didn’t get along.

After one business trip together, Everett reported that her supervisor called her a “dumb lawyer” and said she hoped that when Everett died, no one would come to her funeral. The supervisor was reprimanded for the comment.

Everett wasn’t satisfied and eventually filed an EEOC complaint alleging age discrimination. She continued to receive reprimands for various infractions, including being rude to her boss. Eventually, she was terminated.

Perhaps predictably, she filed a federal age discrimination and retaliation lawsuit.

First, she argued that her internal complaints about being the “dumb lawyer” comment and wishes for a lonely funeral were protected activity. The court rejected that claim, reasoning that, while rude and perhaps not warranted, there was nothing discriminatory about the statements.

Second, she argued she was fired in retaliation for complaining and suing. But the court rejected that claim, too.

It reasoned that her internal complaints weren’t protected activity be­­cause she couldn’t reasonably claim that discrimination—not a personality conflict—was the underlying reason for the comments. Plus, any later punishment was consistent with earlier reprimands and therefore not related to her complaints anyway. (Everett v. Central Mississippi Head Start, No. 11-60026, 5th Cir., 2011)

Final note: There are other reasons than fear of litigation to restrain supervisors. No one likes working for a bully. Nor is harassing employees productive. While some supervisors may think berating employees makes them work harder, the opposite is usually true. Subordinates may end up taking more sick days, spending more time complaining to co-­workers and thinking of ways to get even when they should be working.

Plus, a bully boss probably isn’t going to win your company any spots on best-places-to-work lists. Your organization’s reputation in the community counts for something. Don’t let a toxic boss sully your good name.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nona April 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Conflicts in the workplace are getting worse, as jobs get more scarce.


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