A NEW LOOK AT WORKPLACE LAW AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF AN EMPLOYMENT LAWYER AND FORMER JOURNALIST. FIT FOR EMPLOYERS, EMPLOYEES, AND EVERYONE IN BETWEEN

Horrible Bosses, and what to do about them (Bonus: Are you one? Take this quiz...)

Horrible Bosses, and what to do about them (Bonus: Are you one? Take this quiz...)

The hit comedy Horrible Bosses may have been a dramatization of some of the worst employer behaviours out there, but some of the real life stories out there are no less absurd. 

While each story is unique, there are a few common threads to what makes for a ‘horrible’ boss. These ‘leaders’ are more often bullies, who use their power to demean and belittle their team into fear and submission with the belief that it will lead to better performance. Many have little regard for the wants or desires of their employees, or are willing to tailor their leadership style to better suit their team. Others misunderstand the nature of the employment relationship, and order employees to perform unreasonable tasks well outside their job descriptions. Many furnish unsuitable working conditions, both physically and psychologically. 

For employees, of course, working for such employers can be draining. Most employees take great pride in their performance at work, and to have these efforts continually put down by an employer or direct supervisor is humiliating. This can be even more humiliating if the negative treatment is doled out in front of others, either coworkers or customers. 

In one famous case, a former Wal-Mart employee was awarded over $1 million in punitive damages (which was later significantly reduced on appeal) due to a manager who repeatedly bullied and humiliated her in an effort to force her to quit. In another incident, as profiled earlier on this blog, a former employee who was hearing impaired was bullied aggressively by her former employers for her disability, while they refused to provide her any assistance in the course of her duties. The Ontario Court of Appeal later awarded her almost $250,000. 

Granted, most ‘horrible bosses’ are nowhere near this extreme, but working for an employer who makes the workday difficult and unpleasant can make going to work feel miserable, and the weekends all too short a respite. 

So then the real question is – what can you do if you’re working for a horrible boss? Or, what can you do if you think you may be one? (Spoiler alert: there's not actually a quiz, sorry)

For employees, the first major consideration whether or not your rights are being violated at work. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, you are protected from discrimination in employment based on a wide array of grounds (as outlined previously in this blog), and if you are being discriminated against because of personal characteristics then there may be a human rights violation that can be addressed legally. 

Additionally, the Occupational Health and Safety Act in Ontario contains strict employer requirements in order to prevent workplace violence and harassment, including sexual harassment. If you are harassed at work by an employer or another colleague then it is the employer’s responsibility to prevent this from happening, and there may be a legal resolution available to help you remedy the problem. However, not all employer conduct qualifies as harassment, and there is a difference between genuine workplace harassment and simply having a tough or demanding boss. 

If neither scenario applies and you are simply dealing with a difficult employer then there may be other, non-legal options available. Perhaps a difficult situation has resulted from a breakdown in communication between you and your employer, or your employer has been unclear in communicating their expectations. Perhaps there is a noted or perceived performance issue, where the employer believes that company standards are not being met. Or, perhaps, the employer  has been dealing with outside challenges that have managed, despite best efforts, to seep into their workplace attitudes.

Whatever the situation, the easiest answer may be some simple dialogue. A meeting between the employer and employee just to check in may help to resolve some of the underlying issues, or at least create way for more dialogue. For a more structured workplace setting, a performance review may help bring some of these issues to light, and could also help update and adjust performance goals for the foreseeable future. Both options create room for improved communication, and create an avenue for both sides to professionally address concerns and explore how they can be resolved. 

For employers, the realization that your management style may not be working for your team is a tough one. While being a manager often means taking the responsibility for making difficult decisions, the job can be far more challenging when your employees are uncomfortable or even afraid to be around you.  No one sets out to have a reputation for being difficult, but even the firmest of employers can still be hurt by office gossip and murmurings about their behaviour. 

The difficulties may not be your fault. No one is born a great manager, and building the right skills can take years of training and development. Superior communication and leadership skills may not come naturally, but they can be taught. There are excellent management courses and training programs available both online and in-person that can help impart the skills necessary to become a better boss. While changes can take time to implement, commitment to improving one’s management style will go a long way towards overall happiness in the workplace. 

Sometimes these situations can be resolved with better communication and a commitment to change, but not always. If you are an employer who just cannot get around performance issues with an employee, an employment lawyer can help guide you through a properly structured termination in order to avoid future headaches. Alternatively, if you are an employee who is unable to resolve your workplace issues, an employment lawyer can help you weigh your options and may be able to help you make a smoother exit from the company if all other measures fail. 

The bottom line is that while horrible bosses can be truly awful, there may be ways, both legal and non-legal, to make things better for everyone at work. 

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