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I came back to the office for the first time in a week after being sick. I take care of a couple emails, and then my boss emails me and says he wants to have a meeting. We get into this meeting and he begins tearing into me about me not being able to do the simplest of tasks, even though I’ve been busting my chops doing all of my reports and any extra tasks he’s thrown at me.
He told me I can no longer work from home because I need to be able to “learn more from the office environment” and that I need to speed up the process of finding a new job because I’m one write-up away from being fired. It seems like every day I’m being dragged into these meetings and being told I’m stupid, I’m worthless, and that my future is in jeopardy. I feel defeated and I honestly don’t know what more to do.
I’m depressed when I’m here, and I’m constantly stressed because I am always being watched. I’m tired of being a punching bag. I have an interview today, and I really hope that I get this position because I am tired of feeling like I am in hell.
Tired & Anonymous
Dear Tired & Anonymous,
Your experience is reminiscent of the movie “Horrible Bosses.” Employees are potential future leaders. No one has the right to jeopardize that.
HR departments are there to create a collegial, non-toxic work culture, and foster an environment of inclusivity and — importantly — psychological safety, in addition to their usual tasks of screening, recruiting and training new employees. They are also there to protect the company from litigation and ensure the employees abide by the law. HR professionals, whose jobs have actually been in decline despite a strong labor market, protect the company from legal jeopardy, but as part of that responsibility they also act to protect the employees. This is not Madison Avenue in the 1960s, when liquid lunches were common and sexism and bullying pervaded the office floor.
But first, a caveat. Your employer has every right to insist that you do not work from home, unless your contract specifies remote work as a condition of employment, or if remote work was part of a labor union’s collective-bargaining agreement, or you were provided a reasonable accommodation to participate in hybrid or remote work due to a disability. Alternatively, if your employer insisted that you take a pay cut to work from home, you could argue you had “justifiable reliance” on that new arrangement. In that case, you would have to show that you took a financial hit to work from home.
While bullying an employee may earn you a reprimand from management, it is not necessarily illegal. But that does not mean that offices and factory floors should not be a place you feel safe from harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces laws that prohibit workplace harassment because of race; color; national origin; sex, including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation; religion; disability; age (40 or older); or genetic information. Federal law also protects you against retaliation for complaining about such behavior.
A pattern of abusive or harassing behavior
Individual incidents are also not always enough. In New York, employment law uses the “reasonable person” barometer to decide whether misconduct rises to the level of illegal harassment. “An imagined ‘reasonable person,’ not just the victim, must be able to consider the work environment intimidating, hostile, or abusive because of the misbehavior,” says Ottinger Employment Lawyers. For example, an insurance-company worker won $750,000 in an age-discrimination lawsuit in California after enduring comments related to her age: “Fuddy duddy” was deemed ageist.
“To determine if misconduct is ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive’ to warrant a hostile environment, a court will look at the totality of the circumstances,” the law firm adds. “Some relevant factors will be: the frequency of the misconduct; how harsh or distressing the offensive behavior was; whether the actions were physically threatening or humiliating compared to an offensive utterance; whether the misconduct unreasonably interfered with an employee’s work performance; and the effect of the environment on the employee’s psychological well-being.”
Name-calling, and being repeatedly targeted may not rise to the level of illegal harassment, but you can and should take contemporaneous notes and bring the behavior to the attention of your superiors and/or HR department. There have, however, been extreme cases where an employee who was bullied was awarded compensation: In 2018, the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated a $325,000 verdict for a former medical technician who sued a colleague, a cardiovascular surgeon, for alleged assault more than a decade earlier. In a 2002 incident, the surgeon allegedly approached the technician, yelling and brandishing clenched fists.
Unhappy employees hurt productivity
Having a bad boss is like being in a bad marriage. You rely on both a boss and spouse for your emotional and financial health because one is tied to the other. With your boss, your finances are dependent on their approval. With you spouse, your emotional health is the rock on which the relationship is based. Like your spouse, your boss’s opinions carry extra weight. If your co-worker says, “Nice job,” that’s good to hear, but what if your boss says it? You may be on a high all day long.
In fact, a study released earlier this year by the Workforce Institute at UKG, which provides research and education on workplace issues, found that 69% of workers said their manager impacted their mental health. Here’s what’s curious: The same percentage of workers said their spouses affected their mental health. That makes sense if you think about it: You probably spend as much time with your boss (and co-workers) during the week as you do with your spouse.
Unhappy employees also hurt productivity. The UKG social scientists interviewed 2,200 employees from 10 countries, in addition to 600 C-suite leaders and 600 HR executives in the U.S. “We talk a lot about mental health in terms of a medical diagnosis or burnout. While those are serious issues, the day-to-day stressors we live with — especially those caused by work — is what we should talk more about as leaders,” Pat Wadors, the chief people officer at UKG, a multinational technology company, said when the report was released in January.
Being an employee is tough, and so is being a boss. Both involve a degree of emotional labor. Indeed, when managers are more open about their own mental-health journey, it can help create a more inclusive and supportive environment. “Life isn’t all milk and honey, and when leaders open up about their own struggles, they acknowledge they are not alone, and that it’s OK not to be OK,” Wadors added. “Authentic, vulnerable leadership is the key to creating belonging at work and, in turn, the key to solving the mental-health crisis in the workplace.”
Your job is important, but so is your happiness and mental health. Seek advice from management and HR, keep applying for jobs, and update your résumé.
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