The Practical Employer

Legal Lessons Courtesy of a Year’s Worth of Bad Bosses

It’s scary to think that in this day and age bosses don’t know that you can’t fire someone who needs cancer surgery, or make repeated race-based comments and slurs. 

Who was the “worst” employer of 2017? 

I ask this question tongue-in-cheek (sort of).

Last year, I tracked the stories of 23 employers, the behavior of which was less than exemplary.

From the list of 23 potential nominees, I was able to whittle it down to these four finalists. As much as I would like to say that these stories are fiction, or that I exaggerated facts for dramatic effect, each is a real news story or real case filed in a U.S. court of law.

The Cancerous Boss: An employee received the unfortunate diagnosis of kidney cancer and required immediate surgery to remove the tumor. As a result, she asked her employer for a 10-day leave of absence. If the employer granted the request, it’s safe the say it wouldn’t have made this list. Not only did the business owner deny the request for time off, she told the employee she doesn’t “need people with cancer working in her office” and further stated, “this is America and in America you have to work even if you’re sick.” She closed the conversation by firing the employee, telling him, “With your illness, people die and I cannot keep you as a worker not knowing what is going to happen to you.”

The Racist Boss: An African-American employee complained to her white boss about his repeated use of racist slurs in the workplace. For example, he would comment about his Latino employees, “We’ll just make the Mexicans do it,” and make fun of Hispanic accents in front of them. He also told the plaintiff, along with another African-American female employee, “Y’all are my b******,” before discussing a task. Following her complaint, her boss gave her a Christmas present — a rhinestone-studded purse of the Confederate flag and several photos of him posing with Confederate symbols. 

The Horny Head of HR: A client-relations manager sued his employer after its head of human resources began sexually harassing him. She bragged how her “husband has a girlfriend” and claimed she lets her teen son watch porn. She pestered him about his sexual orientation and hugged him against his will. She texted him a picture of a man reading a book with the title, “A– Eating Made Simple,” a video of a masturbating monkey and a picture of a man with an erection. It culminated with her nibbling on his ear while whispering, “I hope you’re not going to sue me.” That’s exactly what he did.

The Callous Non-Accommodator: Michael Trimble, originally from Ukraine, was born without arms as a result of birth defects resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He rides a modified bike designed specifically for him and his disability. He is extraordinarily inspirational, which did not stop his employer from firing him. A manager complained about Trimble’s habit of bringing his bicycle in through the building’s front door and asked him to carry it up the back stairs. Trimble says he explained the obvious: that he can’t carry his bike up a flight of stairs because he doesn’t have arms, nor, for the same reason, could he walk his bike through an outdoor courtyard. “Can’t you just push your bike?” a supervisor asked him. “How can I push my bike? I don’t have any arms.” His employer ultimately fired him for continuing to bring his bike through the front door.

It’s scary to think that in this day and age employers like this still exist. That bosses don’t know that you can’t fire someone who needs a few days off for cancer surgery, or can’t make repeated race-based comments and slurs, or heads of HR (of all people) who don’t know the first thing about sexual harassment and how to avoid it, or we deny easy-to-make accommodations to our disabled employees.

Throughout 2017, I was asked time and again, “Jon, you’re a management-side attorney. Why are you focusing on bad employers?” Because bad conduct is a wonderful teaching tool: “Don’t do as they do.”

I’ve decided to continue my work calling out the worst of the worst in the hopes that it makes us all better employers and, more importantly, better people.

Here’s your early leader for 2018: According to recently filed lawsuit, a 68-year-old accountant asked his 23-year-old clerk to visit his home office off hours so that he could teach her about tax returns and accounting. She said that when she arrived, he told her that God wanted her to be his sexual plaything, that “she was an angel sent to him for sex and compared himself and her to Adam and Eve.” 

Clearly, my work is not yet done. 

Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.

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