Meanie Streets

WASTE COMPANY OWNERS, no less than other employers, work hard to keep their businesses thriving, productive and responsive to customer needs. To achieve this, some waste firms strive for a diversified workforce that reflects the composition of the community in which they do business. One of the chief reasons why these companies have been successful in attracting and retaining competent employees from across the demographic spectrum is a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination in hiring, assignments and promotions.

Now, all of a sudden, companies that have met the challenges and enjoy the benefits of a workplace free from racial, religious, gender or age discrimination must confront a new — or, at least, newly identified — workplace “outlaw:” the bully boss.

Employment law specialists report a trend to clamp down on abusive bosses by making such conduct illegal. Indeed, a number of states are considering laws that would allow a worker to sue for damages if the boss taunts, ridicules, yells at, or otherwise verbally abuses the employee on the job. These states include Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, according to The National Law Journal. Connecticut's proposal would punish “threatening, intimidating or humiliating” behavior by a supervisor. Meanwhile, New York is aiming at conduct by bosses that causes physical or mental harm.

These legislative initiatives, together with a recent survey finding that most people think they should have the right to sue a mean boss, send a signal to managers, supervisors and employees that threats, insults and epithets will no longer be shrugged off.

While some state lawmakers may be eager to micromanage workplace behavior, courts, for their part, tend to stay above the fray. Judges who are quick to condemn workplace harassment based on race and gender may nevertheless acknowledge the limitations of lawsuits: “[The court's] role is to prevent unlawful [employment] practices, not to act as a superpersonnel department that second guesses employers' business judgments.” [Byrnie v. Board of Education, 243 F.3d 93, 103 (2d Cir. 2001).] And similarly, as a matter of public policy, to what extent, if at all, should a jury substitute its decision for that of a company's human resources department?

Anti-bully-boss legislation can be well-intentioned, but it creates a wide range of questions. For instance, can it be phrased (not to mention implemented) in a way that supports and encourages valid criticism from supervisors? Will such measures merely embolden the slackers? How about individuals who, due to their personality or temperament, simply can't handle any kind of criticism?

Undeniably, countless numbers of employees dread going to work each day because their bosses are — or are perceived to be — nasty and abusive. Their mental anguish can translate into reduced productivity, among other casualties. Providing access to the courts may seem like part of the solution, but could easily create unintended turmoil in the workplace.

Barry Shanoff Legal Editor Rockville, Md.