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You hear a lot about bullies and bullying these days, especially in schools. But bullies grow up. If they’re not stopped, they bring intimidation and violence into the workplace.

What’s worse, some of them will become supervisors.

If you get wind of a potential bully boss, here’s what to do: Talk to subordinates to get a complete picture of what is going on. If most describe a toxic atmosphere in which employees are afraid of making a mistake or bringing up a topic because of their boss’s reaction, it may be time for drastic action.

Recent case: Arturo Martinez came up through the ranks at industrial supplies dealer W.W. Grainger, eventually becoming a branch manager. While he was on vacation, his supervisor stopped by Martinez’s branch and noticed that an employee was standing around apparently ignoring customers. When asked why, he explained that Martinez did not allow any overtime and that he hadn’t yet clocked in.

Martinez’s supervisor explained that the employee should use his best judgment and clock in if a customer needed help.

Next, the supervisor spoke with other subordinates. They said they liked Martinez, but didn’t like his management style.

Martinez’s supervisor devised a performance improvement plan contingent on Martinez “taking ownership” of the problem by admitting his shortcomings and promising to improve. When he did neither, the company fired him.

Martinez sued, alleging discrimination. He didn’t get far.

It was clear to the court that the company had good reason for the termination. Plus, Martinez had no evidence that discrimination played any role in his firing. (Martinez v. W.W. Grainger, No. 09-2925, DC MN, 2011)

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