Are Belittling Comments Harassment?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss who belittles with mean remarks:

What is considered harassment in an office? My boss belittles me in the office, making comments about me. Some are personal, nothing to do with work. None are sexual just mean, very verbal comments about my personality. It has gone on for three years and being in such a small town it is hard to move on and find another job. I hate the eye rolling and heavy breathing he does instead of just being blunt and saying what he needs. Then comes the verbal comments.Is there anything we as employees can do?

Signed, Sick of It

Dear Sick of It:

There are no laws that cover rude, insensitive remarks, even very personal ones. Sadly, since this has gone on for three years, your boss probably figures you don’t mind very much…or he knows you won’t leave no matter what he does.That may be a good way to consider it: At what point would it be too much, to the point that you would tell him to stop treating you that way?

At what point would it be too much and you would quit? At what point would his words and actions be so bad that everyone would quit and shut down his business? You could give him a few hour’s notice so he could decide if he would rather have a business or continue to treat you so badly. But the reality is that you only have three solid options:

1.) You can quit. Dr. Gorden calls this “voting with your feet.” I realize that is much easier said than done, especially if your work options are very limited.

2.) You can stay and confront him in a civil way that is firm and clear about the fact that his actions have to stop.You might say, “Steve, I’ve never said anything to you for the last three years that you’ve made me feel bad. But that remark was too much. Please, please stop doing that. If you’re upset about something, let’s talk about THAT, but don’t keep belittling me and talking down to me.”

3. You can stay and continue to tolerate his behavior without saying anything. That doesn’t seem like a very good option, compared to #2. I know it would be very difficult to speak up, after not saying anything for so long, or after not saying anything that seemed to help. Consider talking to other employees, not to complain but to stratagize about what might help. If there are employees who have been there a longer time and who have influence with the boss, maybe they could provide some support.

You don’t say what kind of business you are in, but perhaps when you talk to your boss you could point out how his treatment of you and others can have a negative impact on how all of you work.On the other hand, you and the others need to examine your own communications. Are insensitive and rude remarks the norm in your workplace? Do some of the employees say things to him that could be seen as rude?

And what about work? Do you and others focus on work so that both performance and behavior is at a high level? Bad work doesn’t excuse your boss’s actions, but sometimes when a workplace is dysfunctional, work suffers too. That just adds to the problem. Try making it a point to talk about how to improve work, the good results you’ve had recently, something positive that has happened, or something good another employee has done. Maybe a huge dose of more positive conversation would help dilute some of the boss’s nastiness. Or, he might realize that people are trying to make worklife better and he’d start to realize how he detracts from it.That may not work, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!I wish there was a magic solution to this situation, but of course, there isn’t. It will require a change by your boss or a change by you or both. You can’t change your boss, but you can change what you do when he is rude to you. And you can change the way you approach work and your coworkers.Best wishes as you decide what you can do and want to do about this matter. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.