Bad bosses beware

MN whistleblower takes on issue of workplace bullying

Bad bosses beware
Thomas James

Joe Henry hated his boss so much, he would've preferred his old Army drill sergeant.

"A drill sergeant is consistently one way," he says. "You know you're going to get yelled at no matter what."

Henry, a barrel-chested man with military posture, joined the Army at age 18 and deployed with one of the first battalions to enter Iraq in March 2003. He served a seven-month tour locating weapons caches and maintaining communications lines. A fellow vet remembers Henry as a reliable soldier — steady under the sound of constant gunfire.

In order to help his client, Mitch Absey, right, attorney Steve Heikens, left, used some clever legal maneuvering
Hilary Stein
In order to help his client, Mitch Absey, right, attorney Steve Heikens, left, used some clever legal maneuvering
Stanford's Bob Sutton says he gets calls every day from beleaguered subordinates since writing Good Boss, Bad Boss
courtesy of Bob Sutton
Stanford's Bob Sutton says he gets calls every day from beleaguered subordinates since writing Good Boss, Bad Boss


Bob Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss put together two quizzes to help bosses assess themselves, and subordinates evaluate their current level of hell. Take the quiz! Are You A Certified Asshole? and How Good Is Your Boss?

For Henry, it turned out wartime was easier to handle than a job in satellite TV installation.

After he returned home, Henry began working as a manager for Dish Network. Six months into the job, his days began to start with the same strange ritual. He'd hit the alarm and lie there, wrestling with the urge to call in sick.

"If I make it to the weekend," he'd tell himself, "I'll buy myself a new shirt."

These little carrots would get him into his car and headed toward the office in Maplewood, but as he neared the low-slung industrial complex, the nausea would set in. There were days he thought he was going to throw up.

All this was over his boss, Marshall Hood.

"He'd get in your face. He'd point, he loved to shove the finger," Henry recalls. "You never knew what was going to set him off."

It is nearly impossible to successfully sue your boss for being a bully. While there are decades' worth of precedents on gender and race discrimination in the workplace, just being an all-around jerk is sanctioned boardroom behavior.

"The standard for outrageous conduct is so high that people lose those lawsuits," says Dr. Gary Namie, the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute. "Nothing is considered outrageous when committed by management."

A 2010 study commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute showed that 35 percent of adults said they'd experienced some form of "repeated, health harming abusive conduct committed by bosses and co-workers." Studies in Britain, Finland, and Sweden have all correlated bad bosses with an increased risk of heart disease. Workers' rights advocates argue that some recourse should exist since bosses can have a profound effect on their subordinates' careers and mental health, to say nothing of the propensity to go mad with power.

"When you put people in positions of authority, of management, if you look at the behavior, it's one of the best and most reliable ways to turn someone into a jerk," says Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor of management science and author of Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Since there are no existing laws against workplace bullies, up until now it's been up to the lawyers. In 2007, an underperforming sales executive in Utah was waterboarded as a "team-building" exercise orchestrated by his overzealous boss, and he had to fight to the State Supreme Court to have his claim heard. An Indiana man sued after his boss, an open-heart surgeon, attacked him in the operating room and told him he was "finished." In 2008, the victim won $325,000 and media accounts dubbed it the first "workplace bullying" victory in U.S. history.

Despite the scant victories, Sutton believes the days of the feckless corporate boss-holes are numbered.

"You can see it as a part of the zeitgeist, of people being more sensitive about bullying with kids," he says. "It transfers to the workplace."

Mitch Absey had no idea, as he watched his wife take a twirl with Marshall Hood on the dance floor of a mutual co-worker's wedding in 2003, that in nine years they'd be facing off in a civil courtroom.

"He seemed like a nice kid," recalls Absey.

Dish Network is the second-largest satellite television provider in the country, but when it expanded to Minnesota in the late '90s, the first office felt like a mom-and-pop operation.

Hood was a stocky, bespectacled Georgia native who'd moved to Minnesota to marry a long-distance girlfriend. While they didn't have much in common, Absey and most of the employees at Dish became friends.

"We knew what we needed to do and we got the job done," says Shaun Sheridan, who started at Dish in 2001. "A lot of us would hang around and socialize, play ping pong, go to the bar."

Peter Beard, the groom from the 2003 nuptials, even had Hood in his wedding party.

"He was a fun guy to be around," says Beard. "He was friends with pretty much everybody."

At one time, Marco Esnaola and Hood held identical managerial positions, and Esnaola says he saw Hood as a level-headed boss — except once, after he got into a yelling match with a technician (Hood "respectfully declined" to comment for this story through his attorney).

"I brought him into the office. I told him if he ever wanted to become something more than a lead technician he had to never do that again," recalls Esnaola.

Hood ultimately proved him wrong. In 2004, as the business at Dish continued to thrive, Hood was offered leadership of the branch and the title of general manager. At the time, Absey says it seemed like a fine decision.

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