Sexist, Racist or an All-Around Jerk?

During a recent investigation of a hostile environment claim, I asked whether the boss in question treated people differently based on sex or race. She said, “No, he’s an equal opportunity jerk. He mistreats everybody.”

She went on to say that the boss ridiculed people by publishing negative, mean-spirited performance feedback emails copied to the entire staff. She also said that he micro-managed her so much that she was unable to carry out her assignments­—particularly because his directions were often internally inconsistent. As with many hostile work environment claims the “jerk” is typically the owner or CEO of the company. What is HR or the Board to do?

In many situations, there is legal liability associated with the boss’s actions, and then legal counsel’s warnings can change behavior. But more and more I am receiving complaints that are more like bullying and less like harassment of a protected class. The California legislature made a finding that bullying or abusive behavior reduces productivity and increases stress at work but a cause of action has not been created. Some legal practitioners predict that bullying claims will be deemed actionable in the near future.

So, the question remains: what to do with the equal opportunity jerk today? Some solutions include

  • Explain to the bully that abusive behavior can infect the whole organization, starting with wasted time exchanging stories of mistreatment to and ending with dealing with emotional issues-like crying.
  • Bullying can also lead to top performers resigning to find more pleasant work environments—even the ones who aren’t be subjected to mistreatment leave.
  • It can’t hurt to tell the bully that the times are changing and what used to be tolerated is becoming a liability. You could say, “Why not start early getting rid of the behaviors that are increasingly risky in terms of liability?”

Any thoughts or suggestions?


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