Category Archives: Harassment and Discrimination

Worst Bosses of 2010

I recently came across a website that lists the alleged “Worst Bosses of 2010.” Now ,it’s not a scientific study, and it’s based on submissions by thousands of individuals around the country to the eBossWatch website (whose tag line is “Nobody should have to work with a jerk.”). That said, I continue to be stunned (I know, I should be less naïve – especially given the work I do) by what bosses do in this day and age.  A few striking examples from this site:

• Sexual harassment: “no honey, no money” was one of the comments from a male boss to his female assistant – and you thought the casting couch was a thing of the past!

• Racial harassment: the white boss saying it was “just a joke” when he discussed the marks a rope would make around an African-American employee’s neck

• Assault, as well as sexual and racial harassment by the female African-American boss who tried to run over a white, male employee in retaliation after he alleged that she called him her pet dog and snapped her fingers at him saying, “Come here, white boy.”

And, lest you think that it doesn’t happen around here, state of Washington bosses landed tsix times on the top 100 “Worst Bosses of 2010.” . The honorees were:

# 8: Don Gough, Mayor, City of Lynnwood for sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.  A number of his female employees have accused him, and the City recently settled a lawsuit for nearly $50,000 with several of them.

# 17: Three managers of the Evans Fruit Company in Sunnyside were named in a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for “sexual comments, propositioning and physical groping” of female employees, including a 15 year old.

# 43: Greg Lassiter was fired as Snohomish County Planning Director for exposing himself to a woman during a golf tournament.  His behavior recently resulted in the County’s settling a lawsuit for $600,000. His Deputy Planning Director, Greg Morgan, was named #56 on the “worst bosses” list for helping create a “Harley club” for male managers whose members allegedly regularly left work early, got drunk, rode their motorcycles, and supported one another in firing and promoting favorites.

# 86: In a letter from her colleagues to the site, State Senator Pam Roach was chastized for “an ongoing pattern of treating your co-workers and employees with hostility and anger. As your fellow Senators, it is difficult to be in a room with you when you erupt in anger. For our employees it is unacceptable.”

So, most unfortunately, we in Washington are well represented here. As we close out 2010, I’d challenge each of us to make sure that we would be found on a “best bosses” list because we understand our own power and use it for good by

• Setting and modeling clear, high standards for workplace behavior and civility, and expecting and helping all employees meet them

• Treating all employees fairly and equitably

• Demonstrating caring and compassion for staff and customers/clients

• Helping all employees meet the organization’s goals as well as their own professional goals

• Supporting the greater community by giving back and encouraging our employees to do so as well.

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday and a great 2011! We’ll be back next year. ~ Daphne Schneider

Communicate face-to-face, with empathy…

The Problem:  Harold, a good employee, had taken a lot of leave in recent months, usually a day or two at a time.  Sue, his supervisor, didn’t think he seemed sick at all, and didn’t know what was going on with him.  She was a little afraid to ask; she didn’t want to invade his privacy.  But the amount of time he was missing was really starting to interfere with the team’s work – and others were complaining about having to pick up his workload.  Sue really needed to know whether he’d be back and doing his share of the work soon, or whether she needed to think of some other way to get the work done.

What Sue did:  In an effort to address the team’s needs and plan out the work, Sue decided to write Harold an e-mail about his absences.  Here’s what she said:

Harold, I know you’ve been gone a lot.  Your absences have really impacted the team’s ability to get the work done.  You know we have to get this project done on time and on budget.  I need a commitment from you that you’re going to be here on a regular basis, or I’m going to be forced to let you go even though I don’t want to do that.  I need someone I can depend on.  Please get back to me by the end of the week and tell me your plans.

Here is Harold’s response: 

Sue, I can’t believe you’re threatening to fire me.  I’ve done a lot for this team over the past several years, and you know it.  Just because I’m turning 60 and have a couple of health problems that have forced me to miss this work I love, you want to get rid of me.  Wait till you’re my age, you’ll see.  I won’t accept this kind of treatment from someone half my age.  You need to know I’m talking to a lawyer.  This is age discrimination, plain and simple.

What happened here?  The first thing that happened was that Sue decided to address a serious issue by e-mail.  And, rather than expressing concern and empathy, her very matter-of-fact statements about needing to finish the project on time and under budget (true) and needing an employee who would be able to commit to helping with that (also true) backfired.  Harold quickly became defensive, grabbed at the nearest thing he could think of (it must be age discrimination) and responded to what he felt was her threat with one of his own.

A much better approach would have been for Sue to sit down with Harold in a quiet, private, unhurried setting, express her concern and solicit his help in figuring out how to finish the project.  He would have felt valued, heard, and engaged in creating a solution.  Even if in the end he would have needed to leave his job, he would have done so with positive feelings – and likely no lawyer or discrimination charge.

Remember: We sometimes write when we should communicate face-to-face, talk when we should listen, and state facts when we should be expressing empathy.  There is always time later for writing and stating facts.  Start with empathetic human communication.  It takes a little more time at the beginning, but goes a very long way to creating a better workplace and saving time in the end.

Have you ever gotten an e-mail when you should have been invited to a conversation?  Tell us about it!  ~DS

When a “Hostile Work Environment” Isn’t

Over the years that I have been a consultant and investigator, I have sometimes been called when staff members go to management with a complaint that their supervisor has created a “hostile work environment” for them. As I interview the complainants, they tell me the supervisor

– regularly speaks harshly to them or yells at them

 – has favorites and is unfair

 – belittles them

 – frequently fails to communicate, or communicates inadequately.

I often discover that the supervisor behaves this way to all subordinates regardless of gender, ethnicity or age. She may be an ‘equal opportunity bully,’ or she may just be an inept supervisor. And, when I speak with the supervisor, she is shocked and hurt that staff see her this way, and denies that she yells, is unfair or belittles anyone. She also tends to believe that she is a good communicator. By the way, she’s well regarded in her profession, has been in this position for years, and if anyone has ever told her there’s a problem they’ve not done so in a way she heard…

 What’s the real issue? This is not a legal problem. It’s a skill and supervision problem. Thus, although staff may have brought a complaint under a legal discrimination label (the creation of a ‘hostile work environment’ is only a legal issue if it is an outgrowth of discrimination), this is not a discrimination issue since the supervisor treats all staff this way. But it is a problem, and still needs to be addressed.

What to do if you’re the manager: So, if you’re the manager to whom the supervisor reports, you do need to take this seriously even though it’s not a legal issue, because this supervisor’s behavior costs the organization. Staff who are feeling mistreated are less productiveand make more mistakes: they spend work time talking about how awful things are rather than producing, and often respond to work issues from a basis of fear rather than professionalism (see Driving Fear out of the Workplace, by Kathleen Ryan and Dan Oestreich). Further, a poor supervisor is the number one reason for employee turnover – but only those employees who are good enough to find work elsewhere will leave; the less competent employees will stay with you because they can’t find anything else. Since this supervisor is well regarded technically, you’ll likely want to keep the person on. If the position cannot be restructured to remove supervisory responsibilities, the manager needs to help the supervisor by

 – clarifying behavior expectations, and providing a timeline for behavior improvement and skill development

 – providing supervisory and communication training, with follow-up to ensure the training is implemented

 – providing ongoing mentoring

– bringing in a coach.

And, the manager needs to assure the staff that they were heard and that the issue is being addressed, and request ongoing feedback to know how things are improving.

But what if you’re a staff member with a supervisor who has these issues, and you feel powerless to do anything about it? We’ll address that next time…

Meanwhile, let us know how you’ve dealt with these issues! ~DS

Dealing With Distorted Perceptions

The Problem.  Each of us sees the world through our own lens.  Inevitably, this means that different people will interpret the same event differently.  It also means that in many cases, “perception is reality.”  Employers and managers can live with that – they have no choice – and it’s an essential principle to keep in mind when navigating the waters of employee relations, motivation, and communication. 

What can create more difficult problems is when an employee’s perceptions cross the line from individual to distorted.  By this I mean situations where (1) there is a reality; (2) the employee has an alternate, incorrect view of that reality; and (3) the employee genuinely believes his or her perception is correct.  

Over the years, I’ve seen this many times: The manager who drives his people crazy by thinking decisions have been made that haven’t.  The employee who sees every negative action as discrimination or harassment.  The employee who sees even positive actions as discrimination or harassment!  Anyone who has conducted a workplace investigation has met this person. 

In situations such as these, it may not be that difficult for the employer to validly decide that the employee’s view is incorrect, or in more formal terms, “not substantiated by the evidence.”  Where the real difficulty comes up, however, is what to do next.  Among the possible problems: 

  • The employee tenaciously holds onto his or her distorted perceptions and keeps them brewing
  • The employee’s distorted perceptions may reflect a mental disability of some kind
  • The employee’s targets remain angry at being falsely accused of wrongdoing
  • The employer believes the employee should be disciplined for making a false allegation. 

The Solution.  Following are some suggested approaches to the above problems. If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear them! 

  • Faced with the complainant who just won’t quit, an employer can tell the employee that he or she may talk only to HR, the union, or other named representatives about their concerns, not co-workers. 
  • If the employee’s distorted perceptions may reflect a mental disability, the employer must treat it the same as it would any workplace disability.  Consultation with a disability expert or attorney may be helpful.
  • The employer should certainly inform any accused parties that the evidence did not support the allegations and no wrongdoing on their part was found.  If the complainant is not holding onto misperceptions too strongly, it may be helpful to have a facilitated discussion between the complainant and the accused.  During this discussion, each can explain why they did what they did and how the other’s actions made them feel.  The two can develop a plan for moving forward.   
  • Sometimes an employer feels it just can’t say, “Perceptions will be perceptions” and let a false allegation go because the situation is so egregious that some sort of discipline seems warranted.  The danger here, of course, is that the employee will claim retaliation for filing a complaint.  In cases such as this, the employer should consult with a legal advisor to determine the risks and benefits of discipline.   ~AS

Work and Romance: Linked Forever!


It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and no matter how much we want to deny it, that day exists in the workplace as well as everywhere else.  It turns out that something we all suspected and observed is actually true: lots of romance happens at work – and many of those romances end in permanent relationships and marriages.  According to a recent survey by, 40% of those surveyed have dated a co-worker, and one third went on to marry that person.  So, my guess is that the combination of work and romance is likely here to stay.  It also means that the office gossip, accusations of favoritism and allegations of sexual harassment (especially for the 2/3 of those relationships that don’t last) are also here to stay.  What’s an employer to do?

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do.  A few of the most important things are:

  • Provide management and staff with sexual harassment training and give them copies of your policy (you have one, right?); talk specifically about how it applies to workplace romances.  Consider developing a policy about dating in the workplace.
  • Be clear: your harassment or dating policy should forbid relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.  If you work with youth or students, make sure the policy absolutely forbids relationships between them and employees.
  • If a relationship develops between co-workers who work together, address it as soon as you become aware of it.  Meet with the couple, clarify behavior expectations, and move one or both to other work units if at all possible (be sure to talk with them about who will move, and be sure your policy speaks to this).
  • Don’t allow romantic expression (romantic hugs, kisses, whispered sweet nothings…) in the workplace, even between spouses.  It’s simply not appropriate.
  • Reinforce that “no” means “no.”  It means one request for a date or phone number is ok, but if the answer is “no,” there must be no second request, no pursuit of friends to get information about the person, no comments on Facebook.


Obviously, romances at work can be exciting, fun and…well…romantic!  They can also be dangerous and expensive pitfalls waiting for the unprepared employer.  So, be clear and be prepared – and Happy Valentines Day!  ~DS

Just Say Hello

I still remember when a workplace mediator told me many years ago, “Hello is huge.”  What did she mean? She meant that when employees are upset that someone, especially a superior, doesn’t say hello to them, it’s important and shouldn’t be ignored.

The issue can come up in a variety of ways. An employee may complain about it explicitly. Or, more commonly,  HR or management may hear grumbling about a particular supervisor or co-worker’s unfriendliness or complaints about the supervisor’s inaccessibility.  It’s easy to think: “That’s just her personality” or “I can’t regulate social interactions in the workplace” or “It’s not intentional – he’s just preoccupied.”  But that’s not the correct response.

 It’s easy to think: “That’s just her personality” or “I can’t regulate social interactions in the workplace” or “It’s not intentional – he’s just preoccupied.” 

The reason? All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated. And the employee feels it, particularly if it’s a pattern.  This feeling in turn may lead to resentment, conflict, sensitivity to slights, and in some cases, discrimination or other complaints. I’ve worked on discrimination matters that partially involved this very issue.

Fortunately, this problem is easy to solve. People who don’t greet others are usually not bad people – they’re just not aware of the impact of their inaction.  Some brief coaching as to why it’s important and when it’s called for should be sufficient.

This may sound like advice for teaching kindergarteners. And it is. But as we all know, employees often trip over each other by failing to observe the basics of successful human interaction and communication. 

Next time: apologies!   ~AS

The Facebook Challenge

The Problem:  You’re the supervisor of a 10-person work team.  One morning Geraldine comes to tell you that a few minutes ago she and Frank were discussing one of their projects when Sam came in and told them to check out their Facebook pages.  They did, and all found some pictures of themselves (as well as other colleagues) from a party the previous weekend.  One of the pictures showed Geraldine from an angle that almost looks up her skirt, with Frank appearing to look down her blouse.  Both men laughed, and complimented Geraldine on her legs.  She left, and came directly to you to tell you what had happened.  She said she feels violated and angry with both Frank and Sam, as well as with the person who first posted the pictures.  She doesn’t know what to do.

What to do?  First of all, let’s be clear: because these are all work colleagues, and they are showing Geraldine this picture at work, it is work-related even though it’s on  personal Facebook pages and it’s a picture from a non-work party.  Generally speaking,  visiting Facebook at work is not a good idea.  Posting an inappropriate picture of a colleague – even on a non-work site and a non-work setting – is highly inappropriate and could be sexual harassment.  You, as the supervisor, need to be very clear with Sam and Frank that their behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop.  Tell them to delete this picture from their Facebook pages, and to stop showing it to anyone or passing it on.  And, remind Geraldine that she should be careful about who takes her pictures!  Electronic media blurs the line between work and non-work.  But, when it involves colleagues, even in a non-work setting, it can have workplace repercussions.  ~ DS

Holiday Parties: A Risk Management Primer

Word has it that many employers are eliminating or downsizing their holiday parties this year due to the economy.  While that’s hard for the food and beverage industry, it’s good for employers’ risk management.  Why?  Because holiday parties are notorious breeding grounds for harassment claims. 

Several things contribute to this situation.  First, the free flow of alcohol.  Second, the free flow of alcohol.  Third, employees who somehow think that because it’s a party, it’s not work-related.  Fourth, managers who set a bad example for the troops. 

So what’s the solution?  Tame parties are good: lunches, potlucks, white elephant gift exchanges.  If an evening party is the tradition, keep the alcohol to a minimum, coach management on its role model obligations,  and end the party early.   Or just give out gift certificates for a Christmas ham or turkey.  Really boring, but tasty and useful.   ~AS