How to help a co-worker who’s afraid of her boss

Question:

Our head of business development is a hard-charging manager who brings our company the new contracts we need to grow. Because none of our other managers have his skill set, he gets away with murder.

It’s an open secret that he’s hard to work for. He goes through an assistant every year, and always hires the same type of assistant: young, pretty and naive. I’ve watched this and can’t stand what I see. I’ve occasionally talked to my manager about the problem, and he’s told me, “It’s not your business and it’s not mine.”

I feel sorry for the young woman who this manager currently supervises. She clearly doesn’t like it when he refers to her as his “office wife.” She’s told me privately that he scares her, that she doesn’t like it when she has to travel with him to our subsidiary offices in the Lower 48 or to meet with funding agencies and has hinted that he’s been physically rough with her. When I asked her what she meant, she began to cry and wouldn’t say more. I think she’s afraid she’ll lose her job if she herself says anything. I don’t know what to do with this information.

Answer:

The words “physically rough” translate to criminal assault or at the least a hostile work environment based on gender. You need to seek out the person who handles human resources for your company or go above your manager to your CEO.

Here’s what you can tell anyone who thinks “it’s not their business.” Employers are responsible for the workplace environment and have a duty to address hostile work environment issues, says former attorney turned human resources consultant Richard Birdsall. “Failure to do so results in company liability and the risk an ‘ostrich with its head in the sand’ employer takes is huge.”

Further, employers that fail to act to stop an employee’s abuse of supervisory authority can be held liable for what their supervisors do, even off the job. Three weeks ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana) ruled that an employer may be liable for intentional acts committed by supervisors against employees, even if done outside of work, if it can be shown the employer turned a blind eye to a problem.

This tragic case, Anicich v. Home Depot USA, Inc., involved the sexual assault and murder of an employee who was seven months pregnant. Home Depot employed Brian Cooper as a regional manager, despite knowing Cooper cussed at, physically intimidated and sexually harassed female employees by rubbing against them and pressuring them into spending time alone with him.

Alisha Bromfield began working seasonally for Home Depot as a teenager. Cooper called her his “girlfriend.” Although Bromfield complained to Home Depot management, they allowed Cooper to keep his supervisor position, didn’t ensure Cooper completed mandated anger management training and didn’t step in to protect Bromfield from him.

In 2012, Cooper demanded that Bromfield attend an out-of-town wedding with him, threatening to reduce her work hours or even fire her if she refused. After the wedding, Cooper murdered Bromfield and raped her corpse.

In ruling that Home Depot could be vicariously liable to Cooper’s actions, the court held that employers have a duty to act reasonably in hiring, supervising and retaining supervisors and employees.

Here’s what your employer needs to do — investigate. They can do so by interviewing the current employee, and if this proves to be a “he said/she said” situation, they can conduct after-the-fact exit interviews with former employees who worked as the business development manager’s assistants. As part of their investigation, they need to reassure your co-worker that the law protects employees against retaliation when they raise the type of concerns she has.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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