Help! My Boss Is An Abusive Jerk

AOL reader questions asked and answered about boss problems

Manager pushing office worker's face against computer screen
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An AOL Jobs reader asks:

What action would you suggest staff take when the Executive Director of an organization is abusive to staff? Staff does not have access to HR. They report to the ED who reports to the board. Some incidents have been "investigated" by one or two board members and the HR of the employer of a board member. Nothing has improved. Incidents have been the ED slapping the hand, kicking, and yelling at an employee to "go do your f****** job," commenting on how an employee is dressed, yelling at staff, ED "forgetting" they did or said something, not following policies and procedures consistently, speaking harshly as to show their superiority. We are at a loss as to what to do. We are not permitted to speak to any member of the board without the ED's consent. We are a small staff of six employees. Suggestions would be most welcome.

Another reader asks:

My daughter has been working at a small firm for approx. 5 yrs. About a year ago her supervisor who she has always had a good relationship with began telling her that nobody likes her and she should start looking for another job. In addition on pay day she throws her check at her. She was told by the same person she was not to talk to the owners when they were in a particular room. She followed the directions which led to her being told by the supervisor that the owners wanted to know what was wrong with her which of course led to more nasty comments. All of the comments are about her personally and not about her job performance. My daughter has seniority over a number of newer employees but the supervisor appears to go out of her way to give the newer employees the better hours and days off. My daughter spoke with the owners, who did apologize for bringing it up to the supervisor but did not want to get involved. She then had a meeting with owners of the firm who told her that they were pleased with her work and proceeded to call in the supervisor. Once again the supervisor offered no facts on her work ethic but proceeded to state that no one liked her. The owners said that they would understand if she needed to apply for another position. This is a small industry and everyone knows one another. My daughter is now terrified to go on any interviews for fear that all of her hard work is now useless.

My main concern is my daughter's health. She has experienced hair loss, hives and stomach issues. In conclusion the above is only a small example of the hostile work environment the supervisor has created. My daughter thought she found a permanent home in a field that she loves.


These are just two of the many questions I have received about abusive jerks in the workplace. To top it off, for these two readers, the situation is occurring in small workplaces that may have little protection under employment laws.

Although many states have made attempts to pass workplace anti-bullying laws, not a single one has passed. You're left with very few options under state and federal laws.

Here are some possible legal claims to have an employment lawyer in your state discuss with you:
  • Assault and battery: Assault is where someone makes you afraid you're going to be hit. If your boss is throwing things at you, then it could be assault. Battery is any unwanted touching. The problem, of course, is proving damages. If you weren't hurt, then it may be difficult to sue for money damages.
  • Stalking: Some states have anti-stalking laws like my home state of Florida's that prohibit "a course of conduct directed at a specific person which causes substantial emotional distress to that person and serves no legitimate purpose." While I haven't seen any successful cases by employees against employers stalking them, I've seen it the other way around.
  • Intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress: If the harasser's conduct is extreme or outrageous and it causes you emotional harm, then you may have a claim against them for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Florida has something called the "impact rule" that requires a physical impact before you can claim infliction of emotional distress, but others have different requirements.
  • State or local discrimination law: Your state or local government may have laws protecting people who work for smaller employers. While federal discrimination laws only protect employees with 15 or more employees, state or local laws may protect you. However, to be covered you'll have to prove that the harasser is targeting you due to your race, age, sex, religion, national origin or other protected status. This might be easier than you thought since bullies tend to target the weak and the different. See if you can find a pattern in who is being targeted. If only women, only people of one race, or only older people are targeted, your harasser may be breaking the law.

If you're being harassed, you have to decide whether to complain (if there's even someone to complain to) or keep your mouth shut. If you complain, try to find a way to complain that is protected by your state's law against retaliation. You can be fired for most bullying, hostile environment and harassment complaints. You should talk to an employment lawyer in your state about your options and what laws may protect you.

Don't let the harasser drive you out of your job until you're ready. Look for another job and get out of there as soon as you can, on your schedule, not the harasser's. You should also look into options like short term disability, transfer or medical leave to try to preserve your sanity and your health. Some employers have an employee assistance program that provides counseling to employees. While your options may be limited, there are options available to you if you work in a hellish workplace.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.

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