Is the boss a real piece of work?

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Times Staff Writer

Bosses are really mean these days, or employees are really thin-skinned.

Lawmakers across the country are considering legislation that would give workers grounds to sue their superiors for being, basically, jerks. Bookstores are stocking bad-boss advice tomes, including “Snakes in Suits” and “Was Your Boss Raised by Wolves?” Today the AFL-CIO will name the worst boss in the country, based on the results of an online contest.

Are relations between workers and management really in such an awful state?

Maybe. The ranks of bullying bosses are growing, some experts contend, as short-staffed companies tap managers with lousy people skills. Others point out that though mean and dimwitted supervisors have been around since work was invented, baby boomers on the cusp of retirement and restless younger employees are more likely to complain or quit than suffer in silence. It’s easy to decide against taking the latter tack, thanks to the proliferation of venting websites, among them www.eboss

The AFL-CIO, not surprisingly, puts the blame on management’s shoulders. Sure, there have always been bullying bosses, said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the union’s Working America lobbying arm, but today some of them “don’t even have good manners anymore.”


If that doesn’t sound like grounds for a lawsuit, at least four state legislatures are thinking about making it so.

A bill in New Jersey would give an individual the right to seek as much as $25,000 in damages if an employer created “an abusive work environment.” Similar measures are pending in New York state, Vermont and Washington state. In California, a Sacramento-based group called California Healthy Workplace Advocates is working to revive a sue-the-boss bill that died in committee in 2003.

The bills are short on specifics, such as what exactly would constitute an abusive work environment, and their prospects are far from certain. The wisdom of giving employees new grounds to sue is debatable, considering the threat of frivolous court-clogging suits and laws at the federal level and in many states that already protect people against, among other things, sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender, race, pregnancy, physical disability and religion.

But New Jersey Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, a Democrat, said she was committed to seeing the Healthy Workplace Act, which she’s sponsoring, become law. People need protection, she said, if they can’t afford to quit and therefore “have to stay and put up with poor treatment.”

Jumping on the bandwagon, the AFL-CIO launched the My Bad Boss contest, now in it second year, to “expose what is a growing problem,” Nussbaum said, and to give workers an opportunity to get their bad-boss experiences “off their chests.”

Last year’s winning entry was “Dr. X,” a dentist who took $100 out of each employee’s paycheck for every canceled appointment.


This year’s contestants -- all anonymous, of course, as they were in 2006 -- tell many horror stories.

One of the hundreds posted is about a lawyer who called the office every morning to give instructions as he brushed his teeth and conducted other business in his bathroom; another is about a manager who refused to let an employee whose husband had a brain tumor take a day off unless she provided a note from a doctor.

“Freezing” in Washington says his office was so cold that the ink in his pen stopped flowing, and his boss told him to use a pencil. A woman in Connecticut says the owner of the store where she worked invited all the employees to a bridal shower for his assistant and the next day presented them with bills for their share of his gift of a $500 china platter. The contestant “Momtimesfour” recounts the day her boss offered to buy everyone in the office lunch and took them to a discount warehouse, where he instructed them to dine on free samples in the grocery section.

“Melanie” from Alabama, a cancer patient who lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, says she overheard her boss making fun of how she looked with a bald pate. And a pregnant pizzeria worker says her manager ordered her to complete her shift after she had gone into labor. “I stayed and waited on customers,” she says, “and made pizzas between contractions.”

This afternoon, after the online votes are counted, the winner of the “People’s Choice” grand prize will be announced and awarded a weeklong condo vacation at one of 500 locations and $1,000 for airfare. And the “Most Outrageous Story” grand prize winner will enjoy a week at the Royal Hotel Vegas and $500 toward airfare. Runners-up will receive prizes such as earplugs, for use when a bad boss is yelling, and “The Very Best of Aretha Franklin” on CD, featuring her hit song “Respect.”

Although a bad-boss contest may be fun for workers, the union, and management and employee specialists around the country, are serious about the boss problem.


This year the Employment Law Alliance, a San Francisco clearinghouse for employment and labor lawyers, conducted a survey of employees across the country, and 44% said they had worked for an abusive supervisor. Another poll this year, conducted by Wayne Hochwarter, a business professor at Florida State University, discovered that workers who thought their bosses were abusive reported higher rates of depression, migraines and sleep disorders than those who judged their supervisors reasonable.

Linda Viloria counts herself among the abused. The San Francisco resident developed high blood pressure after she started working for a boss who yelled at her, she claimed.

“Employees need some sort of protection against this type of issue,” she said.

OK, what’s reasonable?

Lars Dalgaard has an idea. The chief executive of San Mateo, Calif., software firm SuccessFactors had an awakening a few years ago at another company when he reduced a staffer to tears with his abrasive manner. Thus was born the Rules of Engagement, posted throughout the office. “I will not BCC (blind copy) anyone and never talk negatively and destructively behind someone’s back,” goes one rule.

The rules are a “terrific recruiting tool,” said Stacy Epstein, spokeswoman for SuccessFactors. “It’s amazing how in an interview so many people will say, ‘Gosh, I really want to work in this environment.’ ”

In most cases, there are no posted rules, and job seekers are on their own. Asher Adelman, who earned his master’s in business administration at UC Irvine, thought he had it made when he went to work for an Israeli software company. As it turned out, his boss was prone to cursing and throwing things. So the annoyed 33-year-old launched “to level the playing field.”

Its motto: “Nobody should have to work with a jerk.”