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Don't Tolerate a Bullying Manager

I recently left a job where a co-worker and I were harassed on a daily basis by an office manager. Most of the people targeted by this individual would just quit. The business owner seemed unconcerned, but he has now had to settle Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints we both filed against the company. How should a responsible business owner handle a situation like this? —W.H., Nicholson, Pa.

Nearly every owner has to deal with this issue at some point in the life of a business. Particularly in a small business, it's unlikely that the employer is unaware of a manager whose behavior drives staff away. It may be that the manager is a very good producer or for some reason has come to feel "indispensable" to the business owner.

Consistently tolerating the behavior of someone who harasses or bullies employees can be costly, as your case shows. Whether it is a state employment complaint, a lawsuit, or simply constant turnover, small business owners in particular cannot afford to look the other way.

Garry Mathiason, a workplace violence expert at the law firm of Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, says it's important for business owners to determine exactly what is happening when employees complain about a manager or when there's a pattern of high turnover. "If the 'harassment' is severe or pervasive and based on a protected category it could be unlawful. Examples would be sexual harassment, racial harassment, or harassment over age," Mathiason says. "A second category of 'harassment' is not based on a protected category, but is nonetheless abusive. Often these are equal-opportunity harassers: They abuse men or women regardless of race, color, or age."

A workplace bully makes life miserable, not only for the targets but for everyone else, too. "Morale goes way down and the workplace becomes a very unpleasant place," says Anita S. Attridge, a human resources and career coach with the Five O'Clock Club in New York. "It also increases the potential for workplace violence if there's obvious bullying and more people perceive they can get away with picking on workers who are at a lower level."

Hawaii has passed a law encouraging employers to adopt policies against workplace bullying and 13 other states have considered similar legislation. Mathiason recommends that companies adopt policies against workplace bullying but does not favor new anti-bullying laws. "An employee might complain of 'harassment' or 'bullying' by a supervisor who checks daily on his arrival time and indeed the employee might truly feel harassed. But the supervisor may be doing nothing more than corrective action involving an employee who is frequently tardy," he says.

encourage employees to speak up

A responsible business owner will set a good example for managers by treating all employees and colleagues respectfully and dealing with complaints promptly and transparently. "The objective is to put employees on notice that the employer will not tolerate bullying and will take corrective action," Mathiason says.

It's also important to put systems in place that will encourage employees to speak out if they are being bullied. "All employees deserve the opportunity to feel passionate enough about the company that they'll fight hard to solve a problem rather than just moving on," says Burton Goldfield, president and chief executive officer of TriNet, a human resources outsourcing company based in San Leandro, Calif.

Greg Hammond, TriNet's chief legal officer, says the company provides tools to its 8,000 small business clients to facilitate internal grievance and arbitration methods. "There are online mechanisms, ethics systems, and anonymous complaint-reporting tools that are inexpensive and very helpful for business owners who should be taking all of this very seriously," Hammond says.

Particularly as the economy begins to heat up—and the pool of potential employees shrinks—small business owners must be vigilant about making their workplaces healthy and inviting. "A business owner's most important job is to create a culture that nourishes its employees and empowers them to perform at their highest level," says Jon Gordon, a consultant and author, mostly recently of Soup: A Recipe to Nourish Your Team and Culture (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

A bad manager should be given a chance to turn things around and possibly offered HR training or counseling. No matter how valuable they may seem to a small business, if they can't stop driving people away, they aren't worth keeping.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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