Bad bosses beware

MN whistleblower takes on issue of workplace bullying

"Did you also have opportunities to be better?" asked Heikens.

"Absolutely," said Hood.

After several days of testimony, the jury heard from top brass at Dish who testified that Absey's job loss was a long-planned restructuring, and based only on two performance surveys Hood had filled out in 2008 and 2009. In one, Absey had scored a 62 — his replacement, who at the time had been on the job for a month, scored a 64. They also heard a string of human resources employees pass the blame on reporting the satellite dish incident.

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

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HOW GOOD IS YOUR 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?

Both current and former employees spoke, including a current Dish manager who said that he'd expressed a desire to hire Absey back a month after his departure but was cautioned against it: "Do you want to fill the position with him? He was terminated for a reason."

On the final day of trial, the attorney for Dish closed by saying that while the company did not deny that Hood had "issues" with his leadership, there wasn't enough evidence to prove retaliation against Absey. Then Heikens rose for his closing argument.

"Somehow companies have to learn to have a conscience. They have to learn not to treat HR as a black hole, where information goes in and gets buried," he said. "They have to take it seriously."

The jury agreed with him. On February 2, 2012, they ruled that Absey's report was a motivating factor for not giving him a position in another office, and that Dish acted "with deliberate disregard for the rights and safety of others." They awarded Absey $270,000.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Dish wrote, "We were disappointed in the verdict and we have asked the court to set it aside or grant a new trial."

Dish is preparing to file an appeal that will attempt to dismantle the legal logic of Heiken's argument and argue they were under no obligation to hire Absey back. But other attorneys are utilizing Heiken's strategy in the hopes that this is the silver bullet for bully bosses.

Neil Mullin, a New Jersey employment attorney who knows Heikens through the National Employment Lawyers Association, says he has a stack of previously rejected cases to review. Attorney Alf Sivertson of St. Paul says he has already filed three cases in Ramsey County that he plans to argue using Heiken's strategy.

"Once the defense bar gets wind of this they're certainly going to start advising their big corporate clients they now have legal exposure for the verbally abusive or threatening manager."


Seated in a bustling coffee shop just next door to his wife's flower shop, Absey says this is not at all what he expected when he originally decided to sue.

"Initially, I just thought they'd give me my job back," he says. "I went from being a perfect employee to, as Steve put it, persona non grata. They wanted nothing to do with me."

Still, neither he nor any of his old friends from Dish can say they regret the shutdown of the Maplewood office. Henry says his friends tell him he's back to his old self again. Esnaola lost 120 pounds after he stopped stress-eating all day. All the employees interviewed for this story found new jobs within months of leaving or being fired by Dish.

"It's vindication for all the people who were under Marshall at one point or another and felt this wrath," Esnaola says of the verdict. "It was a nightmare working there. You get what you deserve."

Absey strikes a slightly less triumphant note. Since leaving Dish he's got a union job as a low-voltage electrician. It's good work, but he's starting his career over again.

"I'm older than I'd like to be, doing what I'm doing," he says.

He takes more pride in the idea that the case will help other employees working under similar conditions.

"I feel like justice was served, to be completely honest," he says. "Steve shot me a text to say there had been three cases that had used our precedent to move along. It's kind of crazy that this hadn't happened before." 

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