There are Limits to Criticism in the Office

Posted by Sessions & Kimball |

Employee Rights Attorney

Mission Viejo, California

Q: “I work for a very large corporation. At our local office we have three immediate supervisors, and two of them are making the employees’ work life very stressful to the point it is almost unbearable. They continuously make derogatory remarks about employees to other employees, threaten employees with their jobs and make derogatory remarks against the third supervisor to other employees. They fly off the handle, refusing to talk with employees for days if they feel like it. They discuss people’s job performances with other employees rather than in private.

“Numerous employees have complained over and over about these supervisors. The supervisors in the past have been reprimanded, but that was as far as it went.

“Do we, as employees, have to be subjected to this kind of verbal abuse and unprofessional treatment? Where can we obtain any publications for employee rights in the workplace?”

A: “Slander in the workplace is often a big problem. Employers will argue that varying types of management styles are permitted. Supervisors need to comment about workplace situations to the employees involved and others as well to make a point. They will characterize the derogatory remarks as constructive criticism to improve performance.

“On the other hand employees can also argue that such improper remarks go beyond the privilege of private discussion among management. This is especially true if the remarks are false. The employee handbook might even regulate the manner in which comments about performance are to be made. The comments might even violate the company’s promise of fairness and sensitivity toward employment issues.

“The law allows certain privileged communications within the workplace, especially among management and those with a ‘need to know.’ Those who are told, however, must have a justifiable reason to receive the information.

“If the remarks are untruthful, an employee might have a claim for slander. If the remarks are truthful but are simply poor management style, violate company policy or are harassing in nature based upon discrimination, the employer may also be liable.

“If the employer knows about an impropriety in the workplace and fails to correct it, I suggest you write about your complaints to higher management. Review the rules of your own company. If you don’t have a handbook or you are unsure of the policy, check with your human resources department. If the treatment if discriminatory against you, based on age, sex, race or any other recognized basis, your case would be much stronger than if the supervisor is simply a harasser of all groups.

“In the alternative, consider sending a letter to the harassing supervisors directly before going over their heads. They might appreciate the consideration, which might lessen the chance of retaliation.

“Additional publications regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace can be obtained from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Publications on wage and other types of retaliation matters are available through the California labor commissioner’s office.”