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Training a Manager on Harassment Doesn’t Mean He’s Going to Stop Being an Ass (Trust Me) [HorroR Stories]

Dear Madame HR,

My boss is constantly picking on me. In meetings he tells everyone about every mistake I make, big or small. He’s constantly yelling at me and telling me that I am incompetent and stupid. Most days I go home crying. I think this is harassment and he’s creating a hostile work environment. Should I sue? What do you think?


Dear Abused,

Ah, harassment, that old chestnut. I feel like it’s the ‘90s again, Demi Moore was young and a box office draw, Michael Douglas was our idea of the everyman (and young and a box office draw). Every sitcom from Friends to the Drew Carey Show had its harassment episode. And hostile work environment, who doesn’t like to make that joke? “Gee, Bob I could stay late and finish all those reports for you, but then you’d be creating a hostile work environment! Ha, Ha, Ha” Remember Anita Hill? I remember how they all pronounced the word with that soft “a”. No, it’s harASSment—emphasis on the ASS.

So, I realize I saw the word harassment and I jumped to sexual harassment, cause frankly, who doesn’t?  Those words go together like peanut butter & jelly. But you are right, harassment takes many forms, and speaking of ASS, your boss sounds like one. But, there are two things that have come out of all that pervasive media coverage: 1. EVERYONE learned the words “harassment” and “hostile work environment” and thought “kaching kaching,” and 2. Companies figured out how to protect themselves.

If you work in California, and some other states as well, your boss has probably received more training from your company on how to prevent harassment in the workplace then on anything else. That anything else includes: how to not be an ass, how to be a good leader, how to deal with difficult situations and employees, how to give constructive feedback, etc. And why has your boss received so much instruction on how to prevent harassment in the workplace? Because your company is legally required to do it. And it’s working. I was talking to a labor attorney once and he was telling me how in the mid-nineties they thought they’d be spending all their time on sexual harassment cases. It didn’t turn out that way, in fact, percentage-wise it’s pretty small in the whole “what employees sue for” pie chart. What are they spending their time on? Wage and hour (Google “Wal-mart” and “Class-Action”). That’s where the money is.

Back to the matter at hand. First, you should know the legal definition of harassment. Technically it’s only harassment (or only illegal) if he’s bugging you because of your gender, sexual orientation, race, nation or origin, disability, age, religion, etc, etc. And a hostile work environment is only legally a hostile work environment if comments (or actions) relating to one of the above protected classes create such a bad situation that it alters your ability to do your job. There are some other conditions using words like “severe” and “pervasive” but I’m simplifying here to save on word count.

There you have it. Now, I’m no lawyer, but the behavior that you describe above doesn’t sound “legally” like harassment or a hostile work environment. Sadly, there is no law (in all states, I checked) against being an asshole. But, hey, like I said, I’m no lawyer and nobody ever got rich being a realist, so if you want to pursue it, then find yourself some bulldog and have a go. I mean, he’s a guy, you’re a girl — maybe he put his arm around you a couple of times, maybe he leered at you or sent some naughty jokes to your email. Doesn’t sound pervasive, but heck, who knows? I’m not sure it’s worth your time and money, and many attorneys may feel the same. Those million dollar settlements you hear about are few and far between, just keep that in mind.

So, aside from the whole “sue ‘em!” route, how to deal with Mr. Asshole? Here’s a novel idea: Have you asked him to stop? True story: When I got my first “real” HR job, I reported to this veteran crusty HR lady who constantly belittled my experience and knowledge to everyone she saw. It drove me crazy. It was so bad that my co-workers even noticed and would bring it up. When I received the employee of the quarter award and she had to make a speech, she stood in front of the company and told them about how she was so surprised that despite the fact that I had no formal HR or payroll experience, I was somehow able to do such a good job! Finally I went over her head to the HR Director who then talked to her. My manager was shocked! She wasn’t aware of how her behavior was affecting me. She was mortified, apologized, and pretty much stopped. And now, I haven’t worked for her for 10 years, but we’re still friends. I’m having coffee with her this weekend as a matter of fact (Don’t tell her I called her crusty).

For the record, even if what Mr. Ass was doing might be considered illegal, I would still advise starting with telling him to stop. If someone is making you uncomfortable, you have to tell them, give them a chance to stop it.

Does the thought of talking to him about his fill you with a sickening sour dread? Usually I’m not a fan of going over heads, despite my story above, but in this case, maybe you have to. If you don’t feel comfortable confronting Mr. Ass, than go to his boss or go to HR. Be prepared though, someone’s going to have to confront this guy and your feelings will become known. That scares a lot of people and no matter how many times we HR-types like to lecture about how he can’t retaliate, I know that in the trenches stuff like this is scary.

Here’s another piece of advice for you: A long long time ago I made a commitment to myself that I would never cry at or about work. At the time I was being stubborn (although I would prefer to be called “tough” thank you very much) and it was a reaction to my own Mr. Ass that I worked for at the time. But I’ve pretty much stuck to this promise over the years and it has helped. Don’t take things personally at work. Try really really hard. Even though he is saying things that feel personal, don’t take it personally. It’s just work. I mean, just think of all the things that you’ve accomplished just to get yourself in the position to be yelled at by this asshole. It’s not worth your health and your well-being. HE’S not worth your health and well-being. I think that women at work invest so much of their self-worth into their jobs and while this might make us committed employees, it eats holes in our stomachs.  When you get in your car to drive home at night, plug in your iPod and turn on some fuck-you heavy metal (personally I recommend Limp Bizkit’s “My Way,” but maybe you’d prefer Frank Sinatra’s version, or Sid Vicious, whatever floats your boat. That song pretty much got me through the late ‘90s) and don’t think about him, or them, or any of it again until tomorrow. It’s not worth it.

Oh, and finally, if you really are “legally” being harassed, figure out what agency regulates such things in your state and report his (or her) ass. Many times, these things go hand in hand with discrimination claims as well and in those cases some states require you to get a “right to sue letter” from the appropriate state agency before you can sue for harassment or discrimination. We’ll talk about discrimination some other time (are you excited? I’m excited).

I feel like I’m not supposed to say “report his ass.” But, technically, I am supposed to say that, however, conventional HR wisdom wants me to say: talk to him, or HR, or a manager, or whatever. OK. But if it were me, I’d probably report his ass. State and federal agency acronyms in all capital letters scare the SHIT out of employers. DFEH? *shudder* EEOC? I just pooped myself.

Good Luck out there,

Madame HR

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