Yelling and Profanity By A Supervisor

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about verbally abusive boss: We live in the state of California, are there any labor laws regarding this type of treatment in the workplace? and if so what are the steps we can take?

My husband made an honest mistake in the workplace during protocol of steps for a sale of a product. This mistake was due to lack of communication and did not cause a loss of a sale or any harm to anyone. My husband’s supervisor has handled this situation in a very unfair way by calling my husband into his office and screaming at him using profanity. My husband just stands and listens but looks away when his boss uses the extreme yelling and profanity approach which angers his boss even more.

This is the second time this has happened to my husband. The first time he just took the mistreatment and continued to go to work. I asked my husband to file a complaint to HR, but he says other employees have done this for the same reason and the same supervisor and they are immediately fired after they submit the complaint.This time my husband is very discouraged because he does not like to be treated this way, but feels he cannot do anything about it for fear that he will lose his job and not be able to fulfill all of the financial responsibilities that we have. My question is: We live in the state of California, are there any labor laws regarding this type of treatment in the workplace? and if so what are the steps we can take?

Signed, Frustrated And Angry

Dear Frustrated And Angry:

There are no laws that govern profanity or yelling in the workplace, unless the things being said are based on race, ethnicity, gender or some other protected class under EEO laws. Then, one should certainly go to HR or to state or federal EEO offices. Otherwise, it’s an unpleasant situation, but not illegal.The reasoning is that the millions of workplaces in the United States would be having criminal cases filed every day with true and untrue accusations, if there was such a law. The general thought is that no one is required to keep working in an unpleasant place. So, even though it might not be easy or even possible to get another job, an employee is not forced to put up with a bad boss or a bad employer.

In fact, it is much easier for an employee to leave an employer than it is for most employers to fire a bad employee, especially in a large company. So, it appears your husband will need to find a way to work within this situation–and preferably to improve it.

Keep in mind that you were not a witness to the situation, so you are hearing a second hand version. That doesn’t make it false, but it does mean you are only hearing your husband’s viewpoint. The boss may have yelled less or more, the language may have included a couple of common swear words (damn, hell, etc.) or may have been truly gross and obscene, the mistake may have been more serious than your husband thought it was, your husband’s demeanor when he looked away may have been more unpleasant or disrespectful than he describes afterwards. So, it’s difficult for you to know for sure how bad it was, what really happened, what else was going on, what has happened to other employees, and what can be done now.

Again, that does not mean your husband is not being truthful, just that there can be many things going on that add to the report of a situation. One thing is for sure, something unpleasant happened, and it has had a negative effect on your husband’s satisfaction about work. That’s not good.It is certainly true that having a supervisor yell profanities is no way to help employees improve work. A better use of energy would be for the supervisor to look at how the miscommunication occurred and correct that issue. So, I can see why your husband would feel angry and frustrated about the situation. But what he can do about it will depend on several things.One big factor is the type of company, the size of the company and the overall culture. In some businesses and in government offices, profanity and yelling would be forbidden. In others, the employees use that kind of language too and not as much is thought about it.It should never be OK for someone to use profanity AT someone else. That is demeaning and angering and there is no one in the world who works better as a result of having profanity yelled at them. Good employees lose their incentive and bad employees can use it as a weapon to get back at the supervisor. So, it never is good. But, in some workplaces that truth is overlooked and all that matters is getting the work done, not how people feel while they are doing the work–even though that has a direct impact on work quality.The other issue involves what might happen if a complaint was made about the supervisor. Sadly, probably the most that would happen is that HR would contact the manager of your husband’s supervisor and tell him to pass the word along that the supervisor should watch his language.That isn’t serious enough to make the supervisor stop and improve his style, but it is enough to make him angry about being reported.

So, your husband may be correct that it could increase the problems. That’s unfortunate but true. It might be that the other employees who complained and were fired had done something much more serious and were going to be fired anyway. Most companies aren’t anxious to fire someone who is doing a good job. So, the supervisor would have to make a good case. Nevertheless, complaining probably won’t get a permanent solution. That leaves two approaches to take. One is the obvious one of avoiding making mistakes. That’s not a good focus, since it can tend to cause even more mistakes, and it still means the supervisor will be yelling at others.The best approach involves two steps. One is for your husband to courteously stop profanity and yelling at himself, by looking at the supervisor and asking him to stop that language. It often doesn’t stop it immediately, it nearly always reduces it immediately and stops it eventually. He might say, “Glenn, I’m sorry for the mistake, but using that kind of language isn’t needed to tell me about it.” Or, “Glenn, please don’t yell at me or use profanity like that.” Or, “Hey, I can understand you being upset, but yelling at me doesn’t help. You wouldn’t like it if I yelled at you, so don’t do it to me.” The situation between your husband and his supervisor before the incident will probably determine how he wants to approach this during the incident. The other approach is for employees to work around the supervisor or with the supervisor, according to the situation, and on their own find ways to improve work, improve communications, support each other when good work is done and find ways to fix problems that occur. Often in unhappy work groups, people dislike the supervisor but they also create problems for each other.

So, there are no heroes just a mix of miserable people! Your husband and others could take the lead to make work better. Maybe they could use coffee break time to discuss good things that have been done, how to solve problems, common mistakes and how to avoid them or to just feel better about each other and the workplace. At the very least they could help each other out, tell other employees to use them as a resource and make themselves role models for dealing with the frustrations of work.The best thing would be if the supervisor could be won over to how much more effective a positive, respectful work environment is. But that can’t be done if everyone is talking about him, giving him dirty looks and acting as though he is the enemy all of the time.So, it may take some effort on the part of employees to make things better. They know their workplace and they know what they are willing to do.I regret that this is happening, because I know how unpleasant it is to hear about it and not be able to do anything about it. One thing that helps is to make time away from work better by not talking about work except to find ways to solve the problems. Obsessively complaining about it rarely helps and it also ruins time at home! And, as you have noticed, it’s terrible to just hear about it but be told there is nothing to do. If there is really nothing that can be done, then after a few conversations about it there is no point in continuing to discuss it. I’m convinced that, with your support, your husband will either be able to go back to work every day ready to tolerate the situation, or go back willing to do something positive to improve it. Best wishes to you in this situation!

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.