If It’s My Supervisor Who Creates the Problems, Can I Keep My Job?

Question:

I work in a high-stress customer service position. Our workload is extreme, and my coworkers and I work hard. Our company gives us inadequate training. Despite this, they judge us against unrealistic performance measures. It’s a no-win situation.

I like my co-workers, so I’ve stayed. Also, I initially had a great supervisor who was highly supportive. Then, he got fired; I’m not sure why.

The supervisor who replaced him is a jerk. The company gives him free rein to intimidate and bully my co-workers and me. He often stands just behind me, looking over my shoulder at my monitor. He seems to find joy in catching the slightest infraction. He then scolds and demeans me publicly in front of my co-workers or other supervisors walking by.

My co-workers lie low, but that hasn’t worked for me. I’ve developed anxiety issues needing medical treatment. I discussed this with my supervisor who didn’t appear to care. Then, after a harsh confrontation, I had a frightening panic attack.

I contacted human resources and explained my supervisor’s bullying behavior was causing panic attacks. HR told me I could fill out a Family and Medical Leave Act form to cover anxiety-related absences.  I told HR that was wasn’t what I needed as it was the supervisor’s bullying that triggered my anxiety. I don’t have any problems or anxiety at home.

Things have gotten worse lately.  My supervisor’s constant bullying has led me to make increasing numbers of mistakes. Since he hasn’t targeted my coworkers, my performance looks bad in comparison to theirs.

 Today this resulted in my termination. Do I have a way to fight this? If it’s my supervisor who creates the problems, can I keep my job?

Answer:

If it’s your boss who creates the problems, do you want to keep your job?

If it’s your boss who creates the problems, do you want to keep your job?

The argument you put forth is that your supervisor’s actions directly led to your panic attacks and mistakes. You may be right. Employees who work for bullies often feel on edge, leading them to make mistakes and otherwise underperform.

While most states now have laws against bullying in schools, few states have laws making bullying illegal in the workplace. Unless a bully supervisor targets an employee due to a protected category (such as age, race or sex), retaliates against an employee who engages in a protected activity (such as protesting an unsafe workplace), or crosses the line into criminal assault, employees have few defenses against supervisors who act like jerks. You’ve already sought out your best defense by reaching out to HR, but she apparently focuses on your anxiety and not your supervisor’s actions.

Further, your mistakes, whatever caused them, identified you as a less than stellar employee, particularly as your co-workers apparently don’t make the same number of mistakes.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to accommodate employees suffering from stress caused by an underlying impairment, the ADA may not cover you and your panic attacks. Courts in multiple jurisdictions have ruled that the inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety related to the supervisor’s oversight is not a disability (Hobson v. Raychem Corp and Paleologos v. Rehab Consultants, Inc.). One court, the Seventh Circuit, held that even if an employee’s personality conflict with a supervisor produces anxiety, it doesn’t create a disability, but instead requires an employee to get a new job (Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County).

Further, multiple courts have dismissed job-related stress ADA claims on the ground that employers can’t “reasonably accommodate” employees experiencing stress, as stress in the form of heavy workloads, challenging deadlines and difficult co-workers, supervisors or customers is an integral part of many jobs. In one case, Gaul v. Lucent Technologies, in which a doctor diagnosed a plaintiff employee with depression and anxiety-related disorders from his interaction with his supervisors and co-workers, the court dismissed the employee’s suit, ruling that it would be unduly burdensome for the employer to fix the situation for the employee.

In other words, you may be out of luck with this job. You may, however, find it a blessing in disguise, if you find a new job and employer where you can again work for a supervisor who isn’t a jerk.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10l www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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One thought on “If It’s My Supervisor Who Creates the Problems, Can I Keep My Job?

  1. This job and the supervisor are nightmares. Yes, time to look for a new job—and get some coaching on finding ways to be confident in applying and interviewing and explaining why you are looking for a new job.

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