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Warn supervisors: Over-the-Top, irrational behavior may mean personal liability

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Dealing with Bosses,Leaders & Managers,Office Management

Do you have a problem supervisor or manager who acts like a Marine Corps drill sergeant? Brash “leadership” may get results, but it often creates an unpleasant work environment. And while it may not be technically illegal to berate and yell at subordinates (as long as there’s no racial, sexual or otherwise offensive name-calling), abusive bosses sometimes cross a dangerous legal line—the one that marks the boundary of behavior that constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Warn hot-headed supervisors that they risk personal liability if they don’t cool it. Employees claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress can sue the company and the supervisor personally, collecting from both.

Recent case: Patricia Lee worked for Sony BMG and had a difficult female supervisor who was prone to angry outbursts. Because of the economic downturn, Lee and her co-workers were worried about their jobs. During a staff meeting, they asked the supervisor whether their jobs were safe. The supervisor became angry and confrontational.

The next day, the supervisor approached Lee and accused her of undermining the supervisor’s authority. Lee said the supervisor then physically attacked her with shoves that caused back, neck and psychological injuries.

Lee sued Sony BMG and the supervisor, alleging, among other claims, that the supervisor’s conduct violated New York state’s intentional infliction of emotional distress law. Fortunately for the company and the supervisor, the court tossed out the case, ruling that the altercation didn’t quite reach the outrageous level. (Lee v. Sony BMG, No. 07-Civ-6733, SD NY, 2008)

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