Bad bosses beware

MN whistleblower takes on issue of workplace bullying

"I was concerned about repercussion of filing a complaint, but I am at the end of my rope," wrote one supervisor. "I don't know what's worse him finding out that I filed a complaint and using it against me or me and our team working in an environment like this."

About a week and a half later, Hood told Absey his job was terminated.

"All of a sudden I'm getting let go," Absey recalls. "And he had this kind of, 'Whup, you know, kind of looks like I got you in the end' kind of attitude about it. Just nonchalant."

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?

In the letter Hood gave him, Absey was told the decision was part of a larger restructuring at Dish. In fact, several people lost their jobs that day, but Absey was chosen for termination over an employee with six years less experience.

Esnaola was also let go that day, but because he had racked up some bad numbers in recent months, he expected it. To him, Absey's firing made no sense.

"I couldn't believe it," says Esnaola. "He'd done nothing wrong."

Absey was in disbelief as well. Hood offered him the much lower-paying position he'd held eight years earlier as a technician, or an internal transfer to a training manager position in Chanhassen. He applied for the transfer and after a brief phone interview was rejected.

Absey went home and told his wife, who runs a flower shop in Linden Hills. "She said, 'I know this guy who comes in, here's his number,'" Absey recalls.

Steve Heikens was dubious when Absey first called him. As an attorney with nearly 30 years of experience and a founding member of the National Employment Lawyers Association, Heikens knew right away that the chances of winning in a bully boss case were slim to none.

"Laymen, they think that's a hostile work environment, but the law defines 'hostile' as because of sex, race, age. It doesn't mean a general hostility," Heikens explains. "Disrespect for an employee is not illegal. It should be, but it's not."

Absey described the crashing satellite dish and the door-punching incident.

"How can it not be against the law to behave that way at work?" he remembers asking. "You have to punch somebody at work for this to be illegal?"

Heikens typed a few terms into Google: "Minnesota," "violence." To his surprise, Minnesota Statute 1.5 came up.

"The State of Minnesota hereby adopts a policy of zero tolerance toward violence," it reads. "It is state policy that every person in the state has a right to live free from violence."

Heikens surmised that under this statute, he could present Absey as a whistleblower who was retaliated against for trying to keep the workplace "free from violence." It would be a totally novel approach to a bullying case, but if it worked, it could be precedent-setting.

Almost two years after Absey was fired, Marshall Hood took the stand in Ramsey County Civil Court. Judge Elena Ostby advised him of his right not to incriminate himself. Some of the behavoir he was about to admit to could be considered disorderly conduct.

"Mr. Heikens," Judge Ostby said, "proceed."

"Thank you, Your Honor," he said.

In the two years it took to bring the case to a jury trial, there had been significant changes at the Maplewood office. As Absey was clearing out his desk, a Dish regional manager from Chicago arrived to see the hole in the door for himself. Five days later, the manager sent Hood a letter.

"Based on direct observation of the damage to the door as well as concerns reported from multiple staff members, it was determined that that damage to the door was more extensive than originally reported," the Chicago manager wrote. "You were not punching the door in an attempt to open it, but instead punching the door in a moment of anger."

Hood was suspended for three days. Afterward, he remained general manager of the office until it was closed and consolidated with another branch in February 2011 (Hood is now employed with a Dish subcontractor).

Meanwhile, Dish's attorneys sought unsuccessfully to have Absey's case tossed. Hood settled privately with Absey, but he still had to testify. It was finally time for Heikens to test his theory.

Heikens asked Hood if he swore at his employees. Hood admitted that he had.

"You must feel that if you add a little intensity, they'll listen to you even more?" asked Heikens.

"Passion, I would say," Hood answered.

"Did you demonstrate your passion in the workplace?" asked Heikens.

"I would say, yes," said Hood.

"Was throwing the dish down on the ground an example of the passion?" asked Heikens.

"No, that was more frustration," said Hood.

Hood admitted on the stand that he'd thrown papers in the air, smashed the satellite dish to the ground, and punched a hole in his door.

"Do you have any problems related to your temper in the management of the employees at Dish?" Heikens asked.

"I would say I would get frustrated with their lack of performance in certain areas," Hood retorted. "They all had opportunities to be better."

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