Is Your Boss a Bully? That Could Soon Become Illegal

Last Updated Jul 22, 2010 11:53 AM EDT

New York could become the first state to outlaw mean bosses, if healthy workplace legislation passed by the state senate is approved by the state assembly next year. The bill would allow workers to sue for damages -- including psychological harm -- suffered because their boss bullied them.

Wow! Imagine the lawsuit possibilities and the colorful testimony. But keep in mind that 16 other states have considered similar measures and failed to pass them (at least so far), so don't expect to be able to pull your tyrant into court any time soon. Here are a few thoughts on how to deal with the jerk on the job while you wait for your state legislature to take up your cause:
  • Not every bad boss is a bully. You know how they fired your friend at the next desk and now you have to do her job and yours? And all those nights and weekends you've been putting in and the 10 percent pay cut you had to swallow last year? That's not bullying -- those are just the cruel realities of the modern recessionary workplace. A bullying boss, according to the legislation, is someone who is motivated by malice and who is destructive and injurious. You can look at a checklist of symptoms from the Workplace Bullying Institute (yes, there really is such a group) to see if you've got a bona fide bully on your hands.
  • Some bosses are award-winningly bad. You can make yourself feel better by reading the winning entries to the Bad Boss Contest run by Working America, an organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Yikes! There's one story about a boss who demoted the office manager when it rained at the company picnic, and another who screamed "Back to work! We have a business to run!" while an employee was having a (fatal) heart attack on the job. And also, bosses who scream, strip, smack, and worse. You can vent by entering your own boss story for the prize.
  • Whistleblowers have other options. It's coming out now that workers were concerned about the safety of the Deepwater oil rig, but were afraid to talk about it. That's just sad. If you uncover malfeasance at work and are afraid to talk for fear of losing your livelihood, you may have protection. There are laws shielding whistleblowers, though they are a patchwork; some are federal, others differ by state, region, and industry. Check the National Whistleblowers Center for an update.
  • Discrimination is covered, too. If your boss singles you out for abusive treatment because of your race or gender, you could have a lawsuit under current equal employment laws. If he's universally awful, though, you could be out of luck.
  • Keep a journal. Start writing down everything that your boss does. This will help for two reasons. One, it will start building a record that you can bring to the boss of your boss, once you've accumulated enough evidence to file a workplace complaint. After all, most workplaces (excluding a few sports teams and newsrooms -- NOT this one) prefer that their managers not be abusive jerks even if there isn't a law against it. And two, it will be a healthier way for you to channel and process the abuse than smoking, drinking too much, screaming back, or abusing the guy who works for you.
  • Put the boss in a box. Compartmentalize your workplace stress by keeping it separate from your private life. Leave it at work and enjoy your friends, family, hobbies, and other activities as much as possible. Spend your spare time hunting for a new job in a more peaceful and respectful workplace. You can drop off that complaint on your way out the door, just to be nice to the poor sap who may replace you.
Photo by Dickuhne on Flickr.
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