If the “humble boss” is best, who’s the worst?
Sue Shellenbarger, the work and family columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote this week that the “in” characteristic for leaders right now is humility. (Paid subscription required for full access.)
“Humility” includes traits such as respecting the input of others, recognizing that people at all levels make valuable contributions, and being willing to admit to mistakes and accept responsibility.
If humility is what employers are really looking for in their leaders, then it may put me out of work because leaders with genuine humility are less likely to be the source of charges and lawsuits from disgruntled employees.
Being a good boss is no guarantee against lawsuits, of course. But the lawsuits filed by employees of a good boss are much more likely to be frivolous and relatively easy to dispose of.
Old Irish Blessing for Employers: “May all your lawsuits be frivolous.”
But Ms. Shellenbarger’s column got me to thinking about the types of bosses who increase the risk that their employers will be sued. These bad bosses may not actually be doing anything illegal. But because they are toxic, their employees are miserable and will be looking for reasons to get out and to take what they can on their way.
Who are these bad bosses?
The jerk. The jerk is the opposite of Ms. Shellenbarger’s humble boss. Everybody except him is an idiot. He looks forward to reductions in force because they’re “fun.” He blows up and curses at employees, and has caused one or two of the more sensitive ones to suffer nervous breakdowns. All the women who report to him think he hates women. All the minority employees who report to him think he hates minorities. All the men who report to him think he hates men. All the white employees . . . well, you get it. Eventually everybody in his department sues the company and him personally. And even if they lose on their discrimination claims because he’s equally horrible to everybody, they all have valid emotional distress claims.
The “change agent.” This boss, like a shark, has to be constantly swimming or she will die. She restructures her department once a week and changes her employees’ goals and metrics at least that often. The constant meaningless changes and “busy work” create stress, followed by workers’ compensation claims for depression and anxiety. Eventually, an employee in a legally protected category gets caught up for failing to meet the standard of the minute and sues for discrimination.
The “falling star.” This boss takes full credit for his employees’ good ideas. The boss becomes a star, moves up, and leaves the “little people” behind. Without their support, his lack of genuine stardom becomes apparent, and he begins to fall. Sensing weakness, some of his unappreciated and uncredited employees start pursuing legal action to finish him off.
The self-loathing boss. This boss is a member of a protected category but got to where she was because of her own gumption and elbow grease, and without the need of any silly laws to help her. Since she was able to do it that way, she has no empathy for members of her own group(s) who are currently trying to make their way up the ranks. Her distinction: Being the only manager in the company whose EEOC charges have all been filed by members of her own protected group.
The buddy. This boss is GREAT! He’s a pal. He goes to happy hour with his employees on Thursday nights after work, and cuts up with them, and they actually want him there. He’s easy, too — everybody’s performance rating is “Far Exceeds Expectations” because everybody is GREAT! The morale in his department is the best in the company. Until the inevitable day comes when his bosses tell him he has to start holding his employees to standards and can’t give everybody the highest possible rating. Or he’s actually forced to carry out a RIF. Although it kills him to do it, he does what he has to do with the employees who weren’t truly GREAT! but thought they were because he kept telling them so. Next thing you know, he and the company are being sued for harassment based on some inappropriate jokes he made four months ago during the weekly happy hour. Even though everybody thought the jokes were funny at the time.
The elitist. If you’re in this boss’s inner circle, then you are golden. But if you’re not . . . Even though she doesn’t pick her favorites based on race, sex, or other protected category, it sure feels unfair and discriminatory if you’re in the “out” group.
The looker for love in all the wrong places. This boss really is not a sexual harasser, but he’s found love in the wrong place — namely, the workplace. Having a consensual affair at work is not sexual harassment. But (extramarital) workplace affairs carry a high risk of turning into sexual harassment claims. That’s because extramarital affairs always turn out badly for somebody. This boss may get in trouble because of an angry spouse (his own, or the spouse of his paramour). Or he may get a “retaliatory” sexual harassment claim from his paramour if the boss decides to end the relationship. Or he may get a legitimate sexual harassment claim from his paramour if she decides to stay with her spouse and the boss can’t get over it and keeps pursuing her after she’s told him that she wants the relationship to end.
Those are my bad bosses. If I’ve missed any, I’d love for you to add to this list in the comments!
Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.