Tough Manager or Bully? Maybe It’s Time to Learn the Difference

We’ve all had tough bosses. The ones who pile on projects, saying "I need this yesterday," or run their teams ragged but then celebrate in high style after everyone has pulled together to accomplish what seemed impossible. 

These bosses might be hard to work for, but it’s not hard to see that such methods can produce high achievement levels that help companies grow and improve the bottom line. 

Bully bosses are another story. Instead of having a positive impact, they can have a debilitating effect in the workplace, hampering employee productivity, engagement and efficiency. Employees with abusive bosses often feel defensive and scared, losing the ability to do their best work and possibly experiencing stress-related illnesses. Beyond the harmful impact on health claims, absenteeism and turnover, a boss’s bad behavior can also lead to liability, harming employers in the courtroom

To figure out the difference between a tough manager and a bully, you might want to use the definition provided by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a group that aims to study, correct and prevent abusive conduct at work. The WBI says bully bosses are those who subject one or more subordinates to ongoing abusive conduct, which includes verbal abuse; any conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating; and conduct such as sabotage that interferes with work getting done. 

In most cases, workplace bullying wouldn’t trigger employer liability under discrimination and harassment laws, which are aimed at protecting workers from mistreatment based on characteristics such as race, sex, religion, age or disability. Still, a few states have enacted provisions addressing nondiscriminatory bullying, including the following: 

  • California requires employers with at least 50 employers to include prevention training for "abusive conduct" in supervisors' mandatory sexual harassment avoidance training (Cal. Gov’t. Code, § 12950.1).
  • Tennessee state employers, includingagencies, municipalities and other political subdivisions, that adopt anti-bullying policies can be immune from liability if employees bring lawsuits claiming negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish as a result of abusive conduct in the workplace (Tenn. Code §§ 50-1-501 to 50-1-504).
  • Utah requires the state Department of Human Resource Management to provide training for state employees and supervisors about how to identify, prevent and report abusive workplace conduct, and also inform workers about the resources available to them if they’re subject to such conduct (Utah Code § 67-19-44).

Even without any specific compliance or liability risk related to bullying, employers should take proactive steps to address the issue, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. The group provides tips and advice for HR professionals and other leaders on its website

One of the steps employers can take is to provide training to employees and bosses alike on what bullying is, how to report it, how to recover from it and how to prevent it. Inaction may not lead to costly lawsuits, but allowing abusive conduct to go unchecked can create a toxic environment that harms employees and has a very real monetary impact on employers.

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