What Are an Employee's Options When the Boss Acts Like a Jerk?

Why Does Management Allow the Behavior?

Man shouting at employees
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Reader Question:

I have worked for the state for going on 14 years, and never in all of my time here have I dealt with a hostile work environment. It has gotten so bad that I'm planning on demoting just to get away from the constant harassment. We had two other supervisors leave for different jobs just to get away from here. He has threatened to write me up, and other employees for stupid reasons.

When he took over for our existing manager he came in like a house on fire and immediately started demeaning employees to the point that the union stepped in and had the employees sign a petition to have him removed from his position. All the employees signed it, but management ignored the employees and let him continue his harassment.

He has been here for almost two years and it continues to get worse. He has made fun of one of our supervisors who is mentally handicapped, and he has accused the staff of stealing from him. Everyone walks around him on pins and needles and he is constantly yelling at people, and demeaning them.

He trusts no one and he's very paranoid. The union has written many grievances and he is constantly breaking our contract. I have had many talks with him and he continues not to listen to me or anyone else. I have been writing down all my incidents, and I have encouraged other employees to do the same.

I had a talk with his boss and I told him that we have a hostile work environment, and they did nothing about it. I'm at the end of my rope, and demotion is sounding better and better every day. I shouldn't have to lose my extra pay just to avoid him, but my health is more important than this job.

I have developed high blood pressure because of my current situation and I have put on about 15 extra pounds, I have also been rather irritable in my home life, as my wife can attest to. Please tell me what to do about this situation, I could use some words of encouragement.

Our Response:

We're going to break this response down into three separate categories:

  • Your rights,
  • why management allows this, and
  • techniques you can use to get through this.

Your rights.

You mentioned this is a hostile work environment, and it certainly sounds like a miserable, angry, abusive place to be working. However, in legal terms, a hostile environment has a specific definition that requires the law to be broken.

It's most often used in terms of sexual harassment or racial discrimination. What you've described sounds like a nightmare, but a legal one. That's right. It's legal to be a yelling, screaming jerk, as long as you're an equal opportunity yelling screaming jerk. Since 100% of the employees asked for him to be removed, it's pretty clear that he treats everyone poorly, so there's no illegal discrimination.

I know, it's weird that if a boss is mean to one person it can be illegal harassment, but if he's mean to everyone it's okay under the law. If he's singled out the mentally handicapped supervisor at all, then it's possible he's violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that might be something your coworker would want to look into.

Frequently, unions are a big help in battling bad management, but it sounds like yours has either checked out or failed in their attempt. But, if you can get higher up people in the union to take hold of your cause, that may go somewhere.

As a union employee, it's likely that you have employment protection that people outside the union don't have, so you can afford to be a bit more aggressive in your complaints.

Why is management allowing this?

Whenever there is a bad middle manager, you need to figure out why the senior management is allowing it. There are two possibilities.

  • Senior management is just as awful or,
  • Senior management wants your manager to behave that way.

If your senior management is just as awful and turns a blind eye to all of the horrible things this guy does, well, that's just how it's going to be until something in senior management changes. But, if senior management wants the manager to behave this way, you can work with that.

Why would they want a manager who is a terror? Ask yourself, is there some problem they want to solve? Do they have budget problems and because the staff is unionized, they can't fire anyone? But, do they desperately need to get rid of long-term, highly paid employees?

Solution: make the staff so miserable that they start quitting and then replace them with lower paid people. Was there behavior under the previous manager that they didn't like? Was the previous manager quick to let employees get away with things? Has this new guy really cracked down on things?

There is also a very real possibility that what you see as a situation where everyone is being treated poorly is actually a situation where, for years and years, the employees have been performing at a low level and this new guy has been tasked with bringing everyone in line. If that's the case, no wonder he's got senior management supporting him.

Techniques you can use to get through this.

First of all, you need to determine if there are actual problems that your manager is trying to correct. Sit down and make a list of the times you are criticized and what you are being criticized for. If you're being yelled at because you came in late, the obvious solution is to stop coming in late.

On the other hand, if you're being yelled at for it being Tuesday or because the boss doesn't like the weather, or because he finds your voice annoying, that will clue you in that he's not actually looking to solve a problem.

Regardless, continue to document and ask your coworkers to document as well. It will either give you a pattern or give you hard evidence of how rotten this guy is. Keep whatever lists you make at home, and don't type them up on work computers.

You want to keep this as separate from official work documents as you can so that they can't ever take the documentation away from you.

If you figure out that the boss is, actually, trying to solve certain problems, you can go to him and say, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. I understand you're trying to make some changes here. What specific changes would you like to see made? I would like to work with you to help see those changes come about.”

Now, someone who is rational at heart will take you up on your offer. Someone who is just a died-in-the-wool jerk will explode at you for this. So, be prepared.

While you're working through all of this, go ahead and start looking for a new job. You mentioned you were willing to take a demotion in order to get out of there. This indicates you're limiting your job search to internal positions.

Don't do that. You may love the pension of a state job, but you may find the private sector has a better work environment for employees. Don't discount that as a very real possibility.

The other thing to do is to avoid getting defensive when the boss yells at you. Simply reply, “I'm sorry. How would you like me to do that?” This is difficult and requires swallowing a lot of pride.

But, imagine how fast the tension would drop if everyone started responding the same way. If everyone is doing precisely what he wants, when he wants it, he loses his reasons to yell and scream.

Working for a jerk is a horrible thing, but remember, it's not your entire life. If you can try to focus on your life outside of work, it just may make work a bit more tolerable.