Monday, August 10, 2009

Bullying versus harassment

It is generally agreed that the anti-discrimination laws do not create a general code of workplace civility. Employees are generally expected to endure the usual tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, offhand comments or jokes, occasional or simple teasing, normally petty slights, minor annoyances, and the simple lack of good manners. Harassing conduct is only actionable if it is objectively and subjectively severe or pervasive so as to alter the terms and conditions of one’s employment.

In light of this standard, consider the following set of facts, which arose in Hidy Motors, Inc. v. Sheaffer (Ohio Ct. App. 7/31/90), an age harassment claim brought by a 67-year-old car salesman:

  • When the general manager would walk behind Sheaffer he would repeatedly say, “Come on old man, pick up your feet.”
  • After Sheaffer told the general manager that a couple wanted to go home and think about buying a car, the general manager told him, “Come on old man, get your f****** head out of your f****** ass and go out there and slam them.”
  • Referring to Sheaffer, the general manager directed another sales person to help the “old man” close a deal.
  • In discussing a disagreement over a sales bonus, the general manager told Sheaffer, “Old man, I don’t give a f*** what you think. That’s the way it is going to be.”
  • After a child spilled some water on the floor, the general manager told Sheaffer, “I’ve heard that’s what happens when you get your age - you can’t control yourself.”

Based on this conduct, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s summary dismissal of the age harassment claim and sent Sheaffer’s claim back for trial.

There is no doubt that this particular general manager has an interesting management style, and is probably what one would call a bully. But, should a few instances of a 67-year-old employee being called “old man” support a harassment claim? There is a clear line between general bullying/boorish management and actionable harassment. I question whether this case falls on the right side of that line.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or