Rotten bosses prompt legislation, Web sites

The Baltimore Sun

Bosses are really mean these days, or employees are really thin-skinned.

Lawmakers in four states are considering legislation that would give workers grounds to sue their superiors for being, basically, jerks.

Bookstores are stocking bad-boss advice tomes, including Snakes in Suits and Was Your Boss Raised by Wolves? The AFL-CIO even has an online contest that takes entries for the worst boss in the country.

Are relations between workers and management really in such an awful state?

Maybe. The ranks of bullying bosses are growing, some experts contend, as short-staffed companies tap managers with lousy people skills.

Others point out that though mean and dimwitted supervisors have been around since work was invented, baby boomers on the cusp of retirement and restless younger employees are more likely to complain or quit than suffer in silence.

It's easy to decide against taking the latter tack, thanks to the proliferation of venting Web sites, among them www.

The AFL-CIO, not surprisingly, puts the blame on management's shoulders. Sure, there have always been bullying bosses, said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the labor organization's Working America lobbying arm, but today some of them "don't even have good manners anymore."

If that doesn't sound like grounds for a lawsuit, at least four state legislatures are thinking about making it so.

A bill in New Jersey would give an individual the right to seek as much as $25,000 in damages if an employer created "an abusive work environment."

Similar measures are pending in New York state, Vermont and Washington state. In California, a group called California Healthy Workplace Advocates is working to revive a sue-the-boss bill that died in committee in 2003.

The bills are short on specifics, such as what exactly would constitute an abusive work environment, and their prospects are far from certain.

The wisdom of giving employees new grounds to sue is debatable, considering the laws at the federal level and in many states that already protect people against discrimination.

But New Jersey Assemblywoman Linda R. Greenstein, a Democrat, said she was committed to seeing the Healthy Workplace Act, which she's sponsoring, become law. People need protection, she said, if they can't afford to quit and therefore "have to stay and put up with poor treatment."

Jumping on the bandwagon, the AFL-CIO launched the My Bad Boss contest, now in its second year, to "expose what is a growing problem" and to give workers an opportunity to get their bad-boss experiences "off their chests," Nussbaum said.

Last year's winning entry was Dr. X, a dentist who took $100 out of each employee's paycheck for every canceled appointment.

The contestants, all anonymous, tell many horror stories.

One of the hundreds posted is about a lawyer who called the office every morning to give instructions as he brushed his teeth and conducted other business in his bathroom. Another boss was a manager who refused to let an employee whose husband had a brain tumor take a day off unless she provided a note from a doctor.

A contestant named Momtimesfour recounts the day her boss offered to buy everyone in the office lunch and took them to a discount warehouse, where he instructed them to dine on free samples in the grocery section.

Melanie from Alabama, a cancer patient who lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, says she overheard her boss making fun of how she looked with a bald pate. And a pregnant pizzeria worker says her manager ordered her to complete her shift after she had gone into labor. "I stayed and waited on customers," she says, "and made pizzas between contractions."

The Employment Law Alliance, a San Francisco clearinghouse for employment and labor lawyers, conducted a survey of employees across the country this year that found that 44 percent of the respondents said they had worked for an abusive supervisor.

Another poll this year, conducted by Wayne A. Hochwarter, a business professor at Florida State University, discovered that workers who thought their bosses were abusive reported higher rates of depression, migraines and sleep disorders than those who judged their supervisors reasonable.

OK, what's reasonable?

Lars Dalgaard has an idea. The chief executive of Success Factors, a software firm in San Mateo, Calif., had an awakening a few years ago at another company when he reduced a staff member to tears with his abrasive manner. Thus were born the "Rules of Engagement," posted throughout the office. "I will ... never talk negatively and destructively behind someone's back," goes one rule.

In most cases, there are no posted rules, and job seekers are on their own. Asher Adelman, who earned his master's in business administration at the University of California, Irvine, thought he had it made when he went to work for an Israeli software company.

As it turned out, his boss was prone to cursing and throwing things. So the annoyed 33-year-old Adelman launched "to level the playing field."

Its motto: "Nobody should have to work with a jerk."

Molly Selvin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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