When bosses go bad

Editorial Notebook

September 01, 2007|By Donovan Burba

On this Labor Day weekend, it's worth remembering that America prides itself on being built on the backs of its hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone citizens, who have created in a few short centuries a world superpower from the sweat of their labor. This feat is all the more impressive since virtually everyone involved in the process worked for a "boss," and it's a known fact that in recorded history, anything that gets done happens in spite of the presence of the one in charge.

The first "bad boss" story no doubt circulated five minutes after the spear factory HR rep informed his fellow caveman that a saber-toothed tiger bite isn't covered by disability insurance if it happens during lunch hour. From those humble beginnings sprang a long tradition of insufferable employers both fictional and non, from Ebenezer Scrooge to Leona Helmsley to Mr. Burns.

This year, at least four state legislatures are considering measures that would allow employees to sue their bosses for creating abusive work environments, a development that, if passed, promises to keep Donald Trump's lawyers busy for decades to come. And at first glance, the idea of suing the supervisor has an anarchic appeal: Turn the world on its head, show the boss who's boss - and collect up to $25,000 while doing so (at least in the New Jersey version).

The details of the bills are a bit sketchy, and one can only imagine, in this litigious day and age, what people would consider grounds for a lawsuit. In a recent "bad boss" contest - sponsored, not coincidentally, by the AFL-CIO - the "winner" was a cancer patient who lost his disability benefits when his boss threw away the paperwork. Juries would be falling all over themselves to give that man money, and rightfully so, but where do we draw the line?

The pending New Jersey bill features research from the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute - no, really - and makes the valid point that bullying in the workplace can be traumatic, with the effects ranging from sleeplessness to increased heart disease. But it also sets a vague definition for abusive conduct, namely behavior that a "reasonable person" would find hostile or offensive.

This "reasonable person" definition, of course, leaves the door open for the classic "I know it when I see it" rulings, and certainly does nothing to clear up what constitutes workplace bullying. Two very reasonable people may have wildly different opinions of what is offensive, and even the most reasonable among us have those seemingly innocuous pet peeves that drive others crazy.

For example, can a Ravens fan sue his boss for being a Steelers supporter? Does an ugly tie constitute an "abusive environment"? Wearing white after Labor Day? How many pet pictures are too many? Surely anyone who has ever had to dress up as an item of food and hand out fliers on the street deserves some sort of added compensation.

The gray area between malicious intent and simple bad taste is just too vast to legislate. Perhaps the most popular contemporary incarnation of the classic "bad boss" is Michael Scott, the regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin on NBC's The Office. A lawsuit featuring Mr. Scott would no doubt be entertaining, as the show is, but when half the courtroom thinks "That's what she said" jokes and blow-up doll gags are hilarious, the best you could hope for is a hung jury (That's what she said).

And do we really want to legislate away our bad bosses, anyway? The one thing that unifies everyone in a workplace, be it McDonald's or the Justice Department, is a general and unequivocal contempt for the one in charge. You and your co-workers can no doubt name every minor mistake your boss has made, from the time he stocked nothing but decaf for a month to last week, when she got ketchup on your TPS reports. If the boss starts making nice, just go ahead and cancel the holiday party now; you'll have nothing to talk about.

Popular culture, too, would suffer from the shift in power. Say goodbye to The Office, Dilbert, reality shows such as Hell's Kitchen, and Office Space. Perhaps the perennial comic strip Blondie would still be around after more than 75 years if Dagwood had sued Mr. Dithers, but it would be far less entertaining.

Ultimately it's probably best to maintain the age-old adversarial relationship between boss and underling and leave the law out of it - though it might be instructive to see which Maryland legislators would vote against such a measure.

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