“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”— Niccolo Machiavelli, the Art of War
Perhaps Machiavelli was correct, but he wasn’t dealing with an abusive boss.
Employees faced with an abusive or harassing boss used to visit their doctors for a prescription or a note for a leave of absence. Now, armed with the knowledge they can sue for significant damages, traumatized employees call their lawyers too.
Recently, three separate court decisions reinforced the message that employees can sue for abusive, humiliating and harassing behaviour suffered at the hands of their bosses. This scenario, otherwise known as personal harassment, includes severe and unwarranted criticism, persistent rudeness, insulting comments or any unnecessary behaviour attacking emotional and psychological well-being and affecting your ability to perform your job.
Not all behaviour amounts to personal harassment and each situation should be assessed based on the unique facts. However, if your boss turns to bullying or harassment, I offer the following suggestions to help you resolve the situation.
• Communicate first. Before taking a more aggressive approach, you should tell your manager to stop the behaviour that you consider inappropriate. Consider doing this by e-mail so you can document the exchange and any follow up correspondence.
• Build a file. In a lawsuit or a complaint, what exactly happened and who is telling the truth is usually disputed. Therefore, you should build and maintain a detailed documentary file of any information that can be used to establish the truth of your allegations, such as who witnessed the behaviour, where, when and what exactly happened.
• Speak with your human resource representative. For workplaces with human resources departments, you should be sure to meet and document with human resources your side of the story and request the matter be dealt with internally. It is always best to tell your side of the story as soon as possible to ensure accuracy. Also, if there are any policies to deal with personal harassment, you should carefully examine the policy and follow the specific procedures to file a complaint.
• File an external complaint. If you have exhausted every internal remedy, you can also file a complaint under various types of legislation if your case meets certain requirements. For example, the Human Rights Commission examines forms of harassment based on discrimination. Filing an external complaint should only be done after first attempting to prevent the behaviour internally.
• Meet with your lawyer. Recently, high profile cases of personal harassment have been recognized. If proven, personal harassment is a form of constructive dismissal that may justify allowing you to resign and claim damages. Personal harassment may also lead to additional compensation where there is evidence you’ve suffered a medical illness or if the behaviour was intentionally designed to inflict mental suffering on you.
Being personally harassed by your boss is never acceptable and can lead to an intolerable working environment if nothing is done to put an end to the behaviour.