Lynne Curry: Does having a jerk for a manager create a hostile workplace?

Lynne Curry

Q. I work for an absolute jerk of a supervisor.

The minute any customer voices any level of dissatisfaction, he assumes I've done something wrong. He doesn't even think to ask me what happened. Instead, he criticizes me, and if I interrupt him with the truth, he blows up.

Last week he got so angry he turned red and spit when he talked. I was scared and wanted to leave my office but he was standing in the hallway and there was no way out. He only stopped ranting when two other managers came to my rescue.

I've put up with this for a year and have documentation of the times I've gone to our company's Human Resources officer to complain. She's done nothing, other than to send me to a class on Dealing with Difficult People. I asked her about sending him to the class and she said she "offers" classes to managers, but they have full choice on whether or not to take them.

My husband recently lost his job so I can't afford to quit. Is my only option to sue?

A. You have a better option. You may not, in fact, have a legal option, as neither federal nor state laws specifically outlaw jerks.

In January, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case similar to yours, Rester v. Stephens Media, LLC. Newspaper graphics designer Loretta Rester and her manager got into a shouting match after a customer rejected Rester's work and the manager criticized Rester's errors.

Rester's manager slammed his hands on Rester's desk, screaming and cursing at her. When Rester tried to leave the meeting, her manager put his hands on her, physically preventing her from leaving until she began "wailing and cussing and screaming and hollering."

Rester left the building, calmed herself and returned to meet with her manager and the paper's editor. The manager then apologized. A week later, Rester reported the incident to the manager's supervisor and the paper's publisher. Although the paper's Human Resources department investigated, the manager wasn't disciplined. Several weeks later, Rester resigned.

Rester then sued the paper and her manager, alleging constructive discharge -- that sex discrimination and a hostile work environment forced her to quit. The Court denied Rester's sex discrimination claim, ruling that Rester didn't prove her manager yelled at her due to her sex. The court also ruled that while Rester's manager physically prevented her from leaving the shouting match, he hadn't created a hostile environment. According to Circuit Judge Bright, "This singular incident, while most unfortunate, does not meet the standard required. The incident related to a workplace disagreement and the conduct does not denote a sexist connotation." Rester thus lost her constructive discharge claim. Because Rester quit and wasn't fired, the Court ruled against Rester's retaliation claim.

The bottom line? Neither federal nor state laws specifically outlaw jerks. You can only successfully sue if your jerk supervisor treats you poorly because you've engaged in a legally protected activity, such as raising a safety or ethical concern or because you belong to a category protected against employer discrimination. In Alaska these include age, race, religion, sex, national origin, disability, parenthood, pregnancy, color, marital status or changes in marital status.

Given this, your best option is to present your Human Resources officer with a solution rather than a problem. Ask her to mediate between you and your supervisor. A third party mediator forces two individuals who behave badly when left to their own devices to discuss the situation and agree on how things can and will happen differently in the future.

If your supervisor has the temper you describe, he'll show it to your Human Resources officer, giving her a taste of what you've suffered and inspiring her to take action.

If, however, your supervisor only ignites when you or he receive criticism and needs to realize there's more to the story than what the customer says, mediation allows you to get the truth on the table. Mediation thus forces your supervisor to take a hard look at himself --and you as well. What does interrupt him with the truth mean? Does it mean you react defensively or with excuses -- further pressing your supervisor's buttons?

If this doesn't work, you've given this situation your best shot and may be out of options. If so, vote with your feet.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at


Lynne Curry