Well, bully for you

Oct. 15, 2003
Punching through the reality of workplace aggression

These days, the weather is pretty steamy down in Dixie, where Acme's headquarters and largest assembly plant are based. Despite the plant's complexity, its extensive array of material handling equipment, state-of-the-art manufacturing infrastructure and 3,000 workers, it was the first of several in the Acme stable to achieve ISO certification. Maintaining the quality credentials produces, among other things, a definite need for both maintenance excellence and teamwork. Of the former, Acme has an abundance, but not so with the latter.

"I need some advice, Jerry, and I think you're the guy who can help me," said Danny Yelboune, a first-shift maintenance foreman.

"Sure, Danny," replied Jerry Riggs, the maintenance superintendent. "What's the problem?"

"It's more a case of 'who' than 'what,'" replied Danny. "How many chances should we give someone to straighten out and fly right before we make an issue over what could be considered aggressive behavior? I need a reality check here."

"Okay, tell me the story," said Jerry.

"Well, it's all about one of my maintenance mechanics, Liz Ardsken," answered Danny. "She's one tough cookie, thick skin, doesn't take a hint. I mean, I don't have anything against her tattoos. I picked up one myself when I was in the Navy. I can even overlook the body piercings and her habit of wearing studded leather. What makes me nervous is her hair-trigger temper."

"Could it be simply a case of stress?" asked Jerry. "She hasn't hurt anyone, has she?"

"When something sets her off, Liz makes threats. Some are pretty nasty ones, but I don't think she's guilty of physically hitting anyoneyet," said Danny. "She has quite an interesting vocabulary, too. It's almost as if she's an equal-opportunity hater. Do you remember about a year ago, when we had that mysterious shutdown that had us baffled for two days? Well, she laid into Manny Chevits, one of the guys on the assembly line, just because he was watching her while she was trying to get things running again. The intensity of the tirade upset Manny, and he complained about the racial epithets. He put it all in writing. Unfortunately, there were no witnesses. I talked to Liz afterward to get her side of the story, but she didn't see why I was making such a big deal about it. She said she was just angry over not being able to get the plant running instantly. Besides, she added, Manny wasn't fit to be working here, anyway."

"So far," said Jerry, "you've got a case of 'he-said, she-said.'"

"Maybe that's true, but that's not all, Jerry," continued Danny. "Last month, she made threats against Jim Ayka, one of our forklift drivers. Then she threw her wrench down on the floor so hard that Jim actually jumped off the forklift and ran down the aisle to get away from her. Now, Jim is one of the most easy-going people you'll ever meet, but he was scared. I could just feel it when he came running to my office to complain. This time, there were witnesses who corroborated his story. Ultimately, we suspended Liz for a week and ordered her to attend anger management classes during that week."

"What happened then?," asked Jerry. "Did it do any good?"

"No, I don't think so," replied Danny. "She went to four of the classes, but left in the middle of the Friday session after making a stink about the way it was being operated and what she thought it implied. The social worker running the class said she had never seen anything like it before, and she's seen some hard cases. The reason I don't think the classes helped was that just this morning, Liz walked in wearing a tee shirt that had the stars and bars on the front and really offensive wording on the back. I ordered her either to remove it or go home. She left immediately. The guard in the shack at the employee parking lot reported that she sat in her car for about 30 minutes before finally driving out in a blue cloud of burning rubber."

"I don't like the looks of this, Danny," said Jerry, "but I back you fully on sending her home. I think we should do something right away. Can you go with me over to HR to report this right now? Also, we should talk to Hank in plant security. He may have some ideas."

"Sure, let's go. I'm kinda worried, myself," answered Danny.

How many chances should someone get? Can an angry personality be tamed? Is there a way to eliminate the stress? What risks does Acme face?

An attorney says:

Stress is a fact of life in the American workplace today. It's not an excuse for racial epithets, for throwing wrenches on the floor or for peeling rubber while exiting the company parking lot. Liz Ardsken has had her chance, and she should be history at Acme.

Actually, Acme has handled the situation quite well to date. Suspending Liz for a week and requiring her to attend anger management classes for a corroborated instance of inappropriate conduct was punishment that fit the crime. Liz has since blown it twice, once by walking out of the anger management class and once by generating the cloud of burning rubber when she departed from the parking lot. She is a bomb waiting to go off at Acme.

What kind of liability does the company face from retaining her? At the outset, most states recognize claims against employers for injuries inflicted by an employee when the employer has reason to know that the employee has violent propensities. These suits are based on the theory that the employer has negligently retained or negligently supervised an employee the company knows to be dangerous. Given Liz' history, Acme hardly could claim a lack of knowledge about her violent propensities. Should she actually injure someone, Acme could be sued and would likely lose.

In addition, Acme could be held liable for racial harassment for Liz' racial epithets toward a coworker. Employers have an obligation to provide a workplace that is free from racial, sexual, religious, ageist and any other type of illegal harassment.

Before terminating Liz, however, Acme needs to take some precautions. Angry employees who lose their jobs tend to get even angrier, and we have all read press reports of angry employees who return to the premises with a gun and use it. Human resources should consult both plant security and the local police department to determine what steps the company should take in the event Liz returns to the plant after her termination with intent to harm someone. Guarding the entrances, denying her access to the plant and parking lot, and perhaps even providing some personal security for Danny may well be in order.

Julie Badel, Partner

Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.


[email protected]

An academician says:

Speaking of anger management, I have a really short fuse in dealing with cases like this.

No company should tolerate any form of bullying, discrimination, or abusive or threatening behavior, either verbal or physical. The company must step in quickly, first to protect its employees, and secondly, to send a clear signal to other employees that "this type of behavior is not tolerated, so don't even think about acting this way, even if you are just joking."

Organizations need to have clear policies on what behaviors are unacceptable, as well as procedures for adjudicating charges of improper behavior. This includes being clear as to when warnings are appropriate and when dismissal is mandated. The company should have a quick hook on any behavior of this type.

As to anger management classes, they may be okay for people with mild cases who really want to change. But for the serious problems, forget it. In a recent case, one worker who killed three of his coworkers in a manufacturing plant had completed an anger management class. However, a quick read of his history indicated some long-standing and ugly personality problems that no two-day workshop was going to cure. Don't waste the anger management classes on people like them. Get them out of there.

Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.

Loyola University Chicago


[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

The question isn't how many chances someone should get, but, rather, how vulnerable does a specific event leave the employer? The fact that an infraction occurs only once isn't sufficiently mitigating if the degree of vulnerability it generates is severe.

Additionally, anger can be expressed without generating vulnerabilityso it's not anger per se that's at issue in this case. Instead, the issue is that Liz expresses her anger in ways that make Acme vulnerablein more ways than one.

Her behavior produces vulnerability for Acme on three separate levels: physical violence, litigation with respect to race discrimination and safety violations in the plant. Whether or not her anger can be reined in, it's not Acme's role to get involved in her behavioral problems if doing so generates untenable vulnerability.

Given the degree of vulnerability attendant to her behavior, I'd have given her walking papers after the second incident.

Francie Dalton

Dalton Alliances, Inc.


[email protected]

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