Abusive Management – Creates Potential Lawsuits

by Kari Uman
August, 1998

The Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, raised the stakes for organizational liability caused by sexual harassment. Predictably, the talk shows and news shows are buzzing with people giving advice to organizations on how to prevent sexual harassment. However, while sexual harassment definitely needs to be addressed, there is often a seldom-discussed, underlying issue which has the potential for doing even greater damage to organizations: abusive behavior by managers and supervisors.

Having conducted sexual harassment prevention training programs for thousands of people, I am constantly approached during breaks or after the session to discuss other types of abusive behavior employees are being subjected to by their managers and supervisors. Workshop participants want to know whether abusive or bullying behavior such as yelling at employees in private or in front of others, criticizing them in a degrading way, undercutting their work, treating some employees as pets and berating others, etc., is covered under the law.

Unless the behavior is discriminatory based on gender, race, national origin, etc., this type of harassment is not illegal. But illegal or not, employees are ferreting out just enough illegal behavior within these abusive behaviors to make complaints or file lawsuits against their organizations.Often, they do this not to abuse the process, but out of a sense of justice. They want the organization to pay attention to behavior that should be unacceptable in the workplace because it is damaging to the employee’s ability to be productive.

With employees feeling more in demand in this booming economy and the pressures to be more and more productive, employees are less willing to tolerate disrespectful behavior and more willing to make complaints.

Organizations, of course, are required to investigate these complaints, which costs them enormous amounts of time, money and resources. Generally, investigations expose just what is there – little illegal harassment and lots of abusive behavior. It is only at this point ( if at all) that most organizations take action to remedy the behavior. Of course, it is difficult and sometimes frustrating for senior management to pay attention to these issues when it is already stretched thin handling dozens of operational and financial matters. But if it doesn’t, the financial consequences can be enormous and good talent is often lost to better working environments..

To prevent these complaints from occurring in greater and greater numbers, organizations need to be proactive, not reactive. Senior management needs to:

  • create an organizational culture based on respect;
  • model the behavior they want others to follow;
  • monitor the behavior of managers and supervisors, including getting upward feedback from employees; and
  • act quickly to eliminate abusive behavior through coaching, training, mentoring, and/or termination, if necessary.

Your highest producing managers will cost your organization more wealth than they generate if they are abusive.

Aretha Franklin said it best – we all need R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Organizations that don’t follow this guidance and allow abusive behavior by management to continue will suffer the consequences in increased complaints and lawsuits. A little prevention in this case goes a long way.

© Kari Uman 2004