Friday, February 1, 2008

Bullying boss justifies unemployment award

It has long been accepted that our discriminations laws do not set forth "a general civility code for the American workplace." (Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services). Certain fringe groups hope to change this by passing anti-bullying legislation (see Sticks and stones may break my bones...). Nevertheless, as it stands now, employees cannot sue their employers for bullying or being abusive unless the harassment is because of sex or some other protected class.

This week the Summit County Court of Appeals, in Ro-Mai Industries, Inc. v. Weinberg, awarded unemployment compensation to an employee who quit his job because he could not deal with his admittedly abusive boss.

According to the opinion:

Weinberg accepted a position at Ro-Mai after interviewing with Maier. Weinberg, who had extensive experience in sales, was told that his position at Ro-Mai would involve sales work and would require him to be at the office from approximately 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. After a few days of work, however, it became clear that Weinberg's actual duties differed from the job description that he received. He was not given any sales work and he often worked well over the nine hour shift that he was promised. Moreover, Weinberg discovered that Maier had a habit of yelling at the employees. Although Weinberg told Maier that he did not appreciate being treated in such a manner, Maier continued to yell.

On November 3, 2005, Weinberg informed Ro-Mai's head of human resources that he intended to quit. However, before Weinberg left the office Maier sought him out, promised to stop yelling at him, and convinced him to stay. Weinberg returned to work the next day, and Maier resumed his habit of yelling at him. Accordingly, Weinberg quit the following day….

Maier admitted that he often yelled at his employees. During the hearing, he stated: "When I hired [Weinberg], I told him I'm probably the worst employer to ever work for[.] I'm difficult. I expect a lot. And I warned him in advance that I'm very difficult…. [W]hen it comes to the business, I – I can yell. I did yell." Weinberg testified that when he complained to human resources about Maier’s yelling, he was told: "[O]h, it[] gets worse. That’s the way he is."

Maier’s yelling was not a single, isolated incident…. It was a repetitive problem that Weinberg unsuccessfully tried to address with Ro-Mai’s human resources department prior to quitting. Weinberg even agreed to resume work the first time that he intended to quit because Maier asked him to stay and promised to stop yelling. He did not abandon his employment without warning, or leave with utter disregard for the good of the business.

Thus, the Court concluded that Weinberg was justified in quitting his job because of his abusive boss and upheld his award of unemployment.

I've always subscribed to the law and economics model on the issue of bad bosses. Bad bosses beget transitory workforces and ultimately cannot succeed as bosses because of their revolving door. Good bosses create loyalty, retain good employees, and succeed accordingly. Imposing liability (even for unemployment comp) merely for being subjected to a bad boss sets a dangerous precedent that has the real potential to eliminate the "at will" from all such employment relationships.