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Toxic Bosses: When Does ‘Rude’ Cross the Line Into ‘Illegal’?

by on
in HR Soapbox

HR SoapboxThere’s no law saying that work has to be fun … or that managers must have the kindness and patience of Mr. Rogers. Horrible bosses are just a reality in many workplaces.

But as long as managers treat their employees alike—without regard to race, age, sex or other protected characteristic, and don’t otherwise violate the law—they can typically be as unpleasant as they want.

Having a jerk for a boss isn’t grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.

That said, it’s still a bad idea to tolerate toxic-boss behavior. The equal-opportunity-harasser defense isn’t a foolproof argument (see box below). Bad bosses will also crush morale and spike your turnover rate. Plus, aggrieved employees may turn to state laws to claim intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Consider this recent cautionary tale from the courts: Noreen went to work as a director for a hospitality group—and the only female director. It quickly became apparent she had trouble working with her boss, Christopher.
She complained that Christopher routinely treated her poorly, berated her in meetings and generally made the workplace unpleasant.

But Noreen was not alone. The male directors also agreed that Christopher had a “rough style” and would criticize people in meetings in a way that was “embarrassing and unwanted.”

Eventually, Noreen quit after being placed on probation following some on-the-job mistakes. She sued, alleging sex discrimination. She pointed to a long list of unpleasant interactions with her boss, saying she felt demeaned.

Result: The court dismissed the case. While several co-workers testified that the boss was a jerk, nothing about his behavior showed any favoritism or harassment targeted at a specific gender. (Bundschuh v. The Inn on the Lake, No. 09-CV-6037, WD NY, 2012)

Online resource: So where do supervisors in your organization fall on the good boss/bad boss scale? To find out, download and distribute The Great Boss Checklist, a list of the 20 key attributes of great bosses. Find it at www.theHRSpecialist.com/greatboss.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jamie Salcedo March 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I overhear a bunch of stories like the one above at the restaurant I waitress at. A lot of people I’ve seen coming out of it staffing philadelphia offices that stop by to get something to eat have told me of how they were looking for a new job because their bosses were nightmares to deal with.


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