Q. For years I've put up with a bully supervisor who tells me in private how invaluable I am and then ridicules me in public. At first I thought I was overly sensitive, but when others said they felt embarrassed for me, I knew I wasn't misreading what was happening.
I don't know how to handle this. I thought of quitting, but I make more money working in this company than I could get elsewhere. As a single mom, I want to be able to give my kids all the things I wished I'd had growing up.
Our branch manager is a good guy, but I don't dare go to him. My supervisor has made it clear that if I violate the chain of command he'll terminate me immediately. As he's close with our branch manager's secretary, I know she'd let him know the minute I made an appointment.
I've called corporate human resources many times. They've wanted to help me but tell me bullying is not illegal and unless my boss targets me because of my sex or race they can't do anything. So I have no recourse.
A. You absolutely have recourse.
First, when someone tries to bully you and you don't just passively accept it, the bullying fails.
When your supervisor makes an inappropriate comment, ask, "Pardon me?" -- as if you can't believe he said something so inappropriate. Alternatively, ask, "Could you explain that?" or "I'm not sure I understand what you just said."
When you ask the bully a question, you turn the tables. After all, who has control -- the person who asks the question or the person who needs to answer?
Second, although only a few states have anti-bullying policies, your corporate human resources department could create one. I'll be glad to send you or your company a draft policy.
If your corporate HR establishes a policy, someone can then contact your branch manager with your complaint, investigate your allegations and present the findings and make recommendations to your branch manager. Because you voiced concerns protected by corporate policy, you'll be protected from retaliatory firing.
Meanwhile, others victimized by bully bosses have recently prevailed in court cases despite the absence of anti-bullying company policies. In February 2012, a jury awarded $270,000 to a victimized employee fired after he reported his boss' abusive treatment.
According to the court, Dish Network employee Mitch Absey reported to human resources that his supervisor, Marshall Hood, verbally and physically abused him. Absey said Hood screamed at him, turned purple with rage and threw a 20-inch satellite dish near him. Absey reported an incident in which Hood punched a hole through a plywood door while haranguing Absey. (Absey was later fired in a reduction in force).
Absey sued Dish and Hood, alleging that Dish discharged him in retaliation for reporting Hood's behavior. Absey's attorney described the behavior as disorderly conduct and thus illegal. Dish countered the lawsuit, alleging that Absey reported bullying but not illegal conduct.
The court ruled that Dish didn't listen to its employee's complaint and so didn't take sufficient and timely measures to prevent Hood from harassing and threatening Absey and other employees with illegal disorderly conduct. The jury awarded Absey $50,000 for lost wages, $20,000 for emotional distress, and $200,000 in punitive damages.
The bottom line: You have options. Take them.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management- employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.