Does anyone ever actually get fired for harassment?
July 22, 2010 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever personally known anyone to suffer serious consequences for bullying or harassing others in the workplace? I'm talking about cases where you had a reliable account of both sides of the story and you had no reasonable doubts about the person's guilt, nor that they did in fact suffer the consequences.

The reason I ask is: I keep hearing stuff bandied about like, oh, they can't make those kind of remarks, they're exposing the company to lawsuits, they'll get fired. Oh, they can't give someone a bad reference, they're exposing the company to lawsuits, they'll get fired.

Well, the majority of places I've worked had a culture of letting people make as many racist remarks as they wanted, often at the top of their lungs. I understand that perhaps simply making the remarks isn't actionable, it's actionable if someone complains about it. But the fact that nobody complains is quite possibly because they see that it's tolerated, so they don't expect the complaint to get anywhere.

I've also witnessed managers go around yelling "women can't do this, women can't do that" and then single out female staff for obvious persecution (verbally abusing them in front of everyone, falsifying their work records, etc.) before setting them up to be fired. I saw the bully's line manager look on with tears in his eyes, and take the bully aside and explain to him, very patiently and at length, why this kind of thing was wrong, but not actually discipline him. As his cow-orkers, we were told that we should surround him with kindness and show him that aggression was not rewarded in the company culture. Apparently it was, though, because he just kept right on aggressin' without suffering anything more serious than an appeal to his better nature.

I also saw people tamper with records to falsify any factual references that HR would send out in the future. One of the victims got wind of this and challenged it. From what I understand, it was an open-and-shut defamation case (based on an actual legal opinion, not someone's muddled ideas of the law) and the victim could easily have sued over it and not only would the perpetrator have been liable, but the perp's administrator, HR, and anyone who had been involved in passing on the false information would have been held responsible. The victim didn't sue, and as far as I know nobody was ever formally reprimanded. Maybe they just didn't advertise it. But the longevity of their career at that workplace continues seemingly unaffected.

I realize that this may sound like sour grapes, but I'd genuinely like to know. Is anyone here aware of anyone being formally disciplined for bullying and/or harassment or is it basically an urban myth?
posted by tel3path to Work & Money (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I witnessed a direct and harsh harassment in which the victim was reduced to a puddle of tears and the perpetrator, who was critical to the company's success, was immediately fired (and physically escorted from the building). I don't know if a lawsuit ever happened, but man did he get frog marched out of there.
posted by mcstayinskool at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

...and not sure it matters IRT your question, but the perpetrator was a white male and the victim was an asian female
posted by mcstayinskool at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2010

In my work I deal with a Government social services agency and NGOs who collaborate with them, in Australia. Bullying and harassment is a very easy way to get yourself disciplined, demoted, transferred, or sacked. Happens all the time, unfortunately.

Mind you, our processes are subject to the review of independent oversight bodies (the Ombudsman, the Independent Commission against Corruption, etc.) in a way that the private sector is not—that's big Government for you.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2010

I worked with a guy who was formally written up for sexual harassment. This was a retail job, but it was a three write-ups and you're fired place. It didn't take long for this guy to be out of a job.

I was a manager, I was the one that the harassment was reported to so I know what happened from first hand experience. Good workplaces and good managers take this kind of thing seriously.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:06 PM on July 22, 2010

I do have one reliable account of a guy being fired after pushing another guy down the stairs. That's physical assault, though, which you don't see nearly as often as verbal aggression or sabotage.

mcstayinskool, whatever that company was, I heart them.
posted by tel3path at 3:07 PM on July 22, 2010

A relative of mine worked with a man at senior management level (think "VP of operations," though that wasn't his title) who was apt to let loose long strings of extremely vicious profanity and verbal abuse toward anyone who displeased him. Multiple employees complained to HR; he was chastised, failed to reform, and was fired.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:09 PM on July 22, 2010

I see it all the time. I'm an employment lawyer. Yes, people get fired for harassment, but not nearly as often as they should be.
posted by The World Famous at 3:09 PM on July 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

I work in an industry famous for sexual harassment issues. I know of at least 5 people who got fired for their behavior. I personally worked with one person. In that case - the details were brought to managements attention and he was fired with cause on his first strike.
posted by JPD at 3:09 PM on July 22, 2010

Yesterday I found out that one of the supervisors that left my place of employment a couple of months ago was actually fired because he was sexually harassing a subordinate. So I'd say that, yeah, in some places people are actually held responsible for their actions.
posted by jenny76 at 3:15 PM on July 22, 2010

I temped at a firm of lawyers with one notorious bully - loved to drive her assistant to tears on a regular basis, and tried to pull a few tricks on me when she could.
She ended up losing it - REALLY losing it - on said assistant one day - an hour or two of yelling that could be heard throughout the office, and an assistant completely reduced to a whimpering heap. Perhaps it was only the embarrassment of the visibility of this particular episode, perhaps it was just the final straw that they needed for a rock-solid case, but she was fired very soon thereafter.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:16 PM on July 22, 2010

a manager i messed around with in my late teens called on me a couple years later (after i had left the company) because he wanted me to be a character witness saying he couldn't be guilty of sexually harassing a 19 year old underling. i laughed at him.

she made a complaint, he got fired, he tried to sue the company for firing without cause, he was laughed out of court, and i think she ended up suing him and getting some money.

this was a boys club, IT outsourcing company where sexism, racism, and bad behavior happened constantly. i was surprised he actually lost his job, but he was very egregious in his behavior, so maybe it was too much for a blind eye.

come to think of it, at that same job, another manager harassed me, not seuxally, but more on the "a woman can't do this job, and you specifically can't do this job" and would insult me and pull me off projects other managers had put me on. my complaining and a couple other issues had him fired within 3 weeks of starting on my contract.
posted by nadawi at 3:18 PM on July 22, 2010

I've fired someone for sexual harassment and had another employee who would have been fired for racial harassment had they not resigned as soon as figured out what was going on. My wife is an employment attorney and has seen plenty of instances of people fired for this behavior justly and unjustly as well as many people who quite obviously should have been fired but were not.
posted by Lame_username at 3:34 PM on July 22, 2010

I've also fired somebody for sexual harassment. After A came to me, we decideed to give B a warning to knock it off. After B continued to make lewd remarks towards A in earshot of of coworkers, the decision to fire B was easy.

At another customer-service oriented job, a coworker kept on coming in hung over which was reflected in their job performance, specifically in treating the customers well. After a warning by the manager, they came in hung over again and was sent home permanently.
posted by jmd82 at 3:40 PM on July 22, 2010

"many people who quite obviously should have been fired but were not"

Interesting. I honestly did not know that I lived in a world where a person not only could but would be fired for an hour or two of yelling.

What about the people who weren't fired, did their situations have anything noticeably in common?
posted by tel3path at 3:44 PM on July 22, 2010

I got someone fired for this once. Heh.

I had a summer job when I was 16. A guy in his late 20's took to leaving me little notes asking me out. He also started asking the guys I was working with about me. It made me more than a little uncomfortable, so I took it to the department director, who was livid. The guy was a contract worker and was actually employed by a separate company, so his bosses flew in, talked to the manager, and he got fired the same week I made the complaint. I was filling in for the receptionist the day his bosses came in and they *had* to have known that I was the 16 year old in question, because I very definitely looked my age and this was an office, not retail or some other place where you would see teenagers. That was awkward.

I agree with you, though, that it seems like this doesn't happen as often as it should.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 3:45 PM on July 22, 2010

Oh yes. There was one guy, a first class asshole who made a habit of berating his co-workers when things didn't go his way. Sanding up shouting in meetings, stuff like that - totally unprofessional behavior. His boss and HR called him on the carpet and told him that while his contributions were valuable, he just couldn't do that stuff any more. Less than a week after that meeting, he threw another one of his signature tantrums. They sent him home immediately, fired him via telephone that evening and told him never to come back. That particular conversation went so badly they actually had to hire a few off-duty cops to hang around the front of the building for the next few days.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:46 PM on July 22, 2010

I worked in a restaurant in a hotel that was part of a very large chain of hotels. The manager made derogatory and sexual remarks to and about women. I know that a couple people complained. One day while I was working it was slow (I was tending an empty bar) so I was flipping through a newspaper that a customer left. This set him off and he began yelling at me that it wasn't acceptable for me to be reading the paper. He was irrationally angry and backed me into a corner while he berated me. He was also about 6 inches taller and 100 pounds larger than me. I went to hr and the hotel gm the next day.

It took about two weeks (by which time I found a better job with much nicer bosses) but he was fired. It took them some time to build a case against him though, so it was due to employees complaining to hr repeatedly that they were finally able to take action. I'm not that easily intimidated, but getting yelled at by an unstable old man was really jarring. When I told hr what happened my eyes weren't dry and I *hate* crying in front of anyone.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 3:54 PM on July 22, 2010

Worked with a guy years ago who was an incompetent and a jerk...what got him first was sexually harassing a volunteer. (for crying out loud!) I have a hunch that he already had a long file of other complaints, though.

The day he was fired, the HR assistant quietly came around to everyone else in our department and gently suggested that we might want to go to Starbucks. I think there was some thought that he might get violent. I don't think that happened, but I did hear a rumor that he filed a suit charging racial discrimination (he was Hispanic) and lost.

I have NEVER been so happy to see a coworker leave. That guy was horrible to work with, and that was without being actually harassed!
posted by epersonae at 4:08 PM on July 22, 2010

Yup. I got my manager fired after he made a rather blatant pass at me while I was on break. Best part was my SO was about ten feet away. I called the store owner and that's when the freak-out happened; I couldn't set foot in the store for about two weeks until I knew he was gone. (Dude, I don't swing that way.)

He was supposed to go through anti-harassment courses and be transferred to another store, but he ragequit instead. I got to call the cops a couple times because he kept calling the store and threatening me. In the end, not only was he no longer employed, but he got deported back to Canada. I win.
posted by Heretical at 4:09 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I wondered why my dad (brilliant engineer) was out of work so much, if he was so good, and didn't get the story until after he was dead: he was a blatant and noisy racist in the work place and he started getting sacked in the late 1960s (first incident I remember was 1968) for it. This didn't happen once, or twice, or even three times - he was let go every couple years and he never learned. He tried to give me grief about my girlfriends, most of whom were non-white, but I thought he was kidding and paid no attention. When I found out he really meant it I was floored.
posted by jet_silver at 4:32 PM on July 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

In 1996, the publisher of the newspaper I worked for (classified ad sales) was fired within 2 weeks of yelling at me while waving his umbrella at me -- never had anyone say the two were related, but I got some 'knowing looks'.

And my SIL sued a major shipping company after she blew the whistle on people bullying a female courier and then was bullied herself by her male boss. Not sure what happened to the boss, but she won the lawsuit.

So, yeah. Sometimes good wins. Usually not.
posted by MeiraV at 4:57 PM on July 22, 2010

There are cases where someone who *should* be fired are not. I worked as an admin assistant in a company a few years back and filed a complaint against one of my co-workers for harassment. I went through every channel, and followed every step that "they" say you should - kept a log of his harassing comments and unwelcome advances (he actually put his hands on me several times). I went to my boss. After about three months of his constant harassment, a company lawyer came out and took our statements. They found that there was no cause for a suit.

It helped their case that by the time the lawyer came around I'd become so stressed I was clearly manic - and therefore hysterical and therefore obviously delusional (sarcasm here). It didn't help my case that I was the only female employee in the company. After that, I went to the EEOC, but they said me they couldn't do anything because even though the corporation had several thousand employees, the company I worked for only had ten - I think that there's some kind of minimum - 13? Also, they said it hurt my case that I quit. Of course I quit, did they think I'd work in a place where no one believed me? Stupid.

Anyway, I dropped the whole thing and moved on. It wasn't worth bothering with.

Different company - different people. A supervisor of mine openly threatened to sue the company because a man complimented her how nice she looked that day. That's all he said, "You look nice today." This was after she'd made several disparaging remarks about my religious views (Agnostic), and another fellow supervisor's English skills (the other supervisor was from Germany). The company laid her off about six months after the "sexual harassment" incident.
posted by patheral at 5:19 PM on July 22, 2010

In the good old days (the 20th century) assholes got away with this shit all the time.

In the 21st century, if HR doesn't take your concerns seriously, then a decent lawyer has the potential to sue the whole damn company for lots and lots of money, for not taking your concerns seriously.
posted by ovvl at 5:32 PM on July 22, 2010

A co-worker of mine got fired for being a bully. However, she churned through dozens of staff and kept her highly-paid position for a number of years before they finally decided they had cause to fire her. This is the norm, as far as I can see. Benefit of the doubt until the right person manages to convince the big boss that NO REALLY THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
posted by desuetude at 6:21 PM on July 22, 2010

Twenty years ago, when I was in college and working a summer job as a cashier at a museum there was a security guard who mildly harassed the female cashiers - possibly more out of general cluelessness and thinking he was funny when he wasn't than out of direct intention to make our lives miserable. For example, I and another cashier were standing at the front desk waiting for the security supervisor to open the safe and get our money bags so we could be escorted back to the booths where our stations were, and someone referred to us with the word "ladies." The guard in questions said "Ladies? I see no ladies here," then paused a moment and said "Just a couple of princesses." In and of itself, it wouldn't be worth any more than an eyeroll on our parts, except that he said that sort of thing constantly, and was tiresome, and never stopped when we told him he wasn't funny and we wanted him to stop.

One day, I had to deliver the receipts and extra cash to the business office on the upper floor, and the supervisor radioed him and told him to take me up there. He radioed back with a crack about my weight - saying he didn't think he could pick me up - and by the time that we got back down, his supervisor was standing at the foot of the stairs with a scowl on her face and dressed him down but good - he started apologizing to me over and over and over - and asked me if I wanted to file a complaint. I said no (I think nowadays I'd be less tolerant), and the next day he was transferred to the other museum owned by the same organization, which was much bigger and hosting a blockbuster exhibit at the time, so it was constantly packed with people, and he had to stand in a corner and direct traffic all day, instead of the cushy job that the guards at our museum had, which mostly involved chatting with the cashiers and showing people where the bathrooms were if we happened to have a visitor.

Not a huge consequence like firing, but it was definitely an unpleasant one for him.
posted by telophase at 6:35 PM on July 22, 2010

"I honestly did not know that I lived in a world where a person not only could but would be fired for an hour or two of yelling. "

Your description of what is tolerated at your workplace is pretty shocking to me. I've been in a blue-collar environment where a little of that could fly before someone would shut it down, no consequences beyond that, and a little of that in a small owner-operated business where the owner was cut from last generation's mold, but I've never seen things approach the level of nuclear you describe in a professional environment. I've worked on opposite ends of the earth too.

I'm guessing you're simply in an industry/business that has a rougher-than-average culture.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:46 PM on July 22, 2010

I don't have a story about a bully being fired, but I have a tale about a company that does its best to stop this stuff well before it becomes a problem. I worked in a national chain restaurant about which exists myths (which are rooted in truth, but which stem from incidents multiple decades ago and have long since been sorted) of systemic racism. It still gets some bad press about this occasionally, and consequently management and corporate take anything like that very seriously.

We had a server there who was well-respected--very nice guy, great attitude, great at training people, customers loved him, etc.. He had a weakness for a particular other server he knew from school. She had a boyfriend, another fellow classmate. This boyfriend was a class-A jackass and flaunted their relationship in Server Guy's face often and quite meanly, at least one time in the restaurant. Server Guy got fed up and called him a "freaking ni"--he actually said "freaking," and stopped himself before even starting the second syllable of the offensive word. He should have known better, as the company's training made very clear the consequences of such stupidity. He was out the door within five minutes of the incident, about fifteen seconds after admitting to a manager what he'd said.

He was officially fired first thing the next morning. I had no idea that stuff like that could happen so fast. People missed him, yeah, but I don't remember a single person saying he didn't get precisely what he knew he had coming to him. Good companies like that one take advantage of that kind of allegory to create a culture where employees know that that crap shouldn't happen at work.
posted by The Potate at 7:18 PM on July 22, 2010

A friend of mine was harassed by a woman at work, and the harasser was eventually (2+ years later) fired.
posted by sacrifix at 7:40 PM on July 22, 2010

I fired someone for being a bully, not after one specific incident (his blow outs were a bit more contained than some of those above) but after I had observed, identified and documented a clear pattern in his behaviour. He serially verbally attacked, undercut and belittled the work of his peers (but not those he decided were beneath him).

My only regret was taking so long to identify the pattern (nine months).
posted by scrute at 8:36 PM on July 22, 2010

Incidentally, legislation in Ontario came into effect last month that makes it mandatory for every company/business/non-profit that employs more than one person to have policies and corresponding programs to address/prevent both violence and harassment (of all types) in the workplace.
posted by scrute at 8:44 PM on July 22, 2010

I'm an employment defense attorney (which means I defend the companies and their (alleged) harassers and discriminators) and it most certainly happens. In many of the cases I handle the perpetrator has been fired.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:18 PM on July 22, 2010

Seriously? A simple google search for "fired for sexual harassment" will turn up plenty of straightforward news stories if you flip through a few pages. I've never witnessed it occur but I can think of three cases I heard of at one remove (someone I knew well witnessed it personally), where I'm absolutely certain of the veracity of the facts, where an individual was fired for sexual harassment.

Also, I would say that in the majority of the places I've worked (and I've worked at a lot as I did short term temp for several years) I never heard an openly racist or sexist remark or witnessed what I'd call bullying. In the three full-time regular jobs where I worked the longest there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that if an individual had made an openly racist or sexist remark publicly they would have been at the least strongly reprimanded and subjected to a disciplinary action but more likely immediately fired. This might not be the majority but it is certainly not some kind of fairytale or pipe dream. It's just a reasonably enlightened modern office that is not going to allow people to expose the company to legal liability engaging in sorry 1950's bullshit. I'm sorry to say it but you have just worked for a lot of shitty employers.
posted by nanojath at 10:48 PM on July 22, 2010

I think that people who tend to be shitty to their underlings also tend to be shitty to their overlings, if in different ways. My boss, who was a ridiculous asshole to me, got fired because the bosses simply didn't LIKE him, because he was a jerk.
posted by OrangeDrink at 11:48 PM on July 22, 2010

I have a friend who is an employment lawyer, and she recently won a case for a woman who was fired after she complained of sexual harassment at work (she sued for unfair dismissal, and was found to be in the right). This is in the UK.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:14 AM on July 23, 2010

Years ago, I turned down switching shifts with one of my assistant supervisors, "Mary" for her "son's birthday" (she asked 1 day prior to the supposed event which, um yeah). She then told me to MAKE the other asst. supervisor trade with her because his reason for wanting the day off was bogus and "she'd already called & checked on it". So um double yeah. Not to mention that she'd been on the schedule for that day for an entire month and had plenty of opportunities to switch that day in the weeks prior.

That night, I get a phone call while I'm at work- a woman said "If you don't let Mary have tomorrow off, we're coming there to kill you." Then I got another phone call - a man this time - with more threats. I worked, at that time, in an isolated building in the middle of a cemetery. Cue hysteria on my part.

I called the branch manager (my direct boss) and made an official complaint and one of the assistant managers came in to help me close down the office & escorted me home. Mary admitted to having her friends call the office because "it wasn't right that she couldn't have her son's birthday off".

Mary was either fired or she quit. I quit a few weeks later and Mary got my job. Months after that, the branch manager was fired by corporate for sexually harassing Mary - something he'd always told me he worried about because "she was that type of person".

So I win I guess.
posted by jaimystery at 1:33 PM on July 23, 2010

My very first job, I was sexually harassed by a married man. Repeatedly. Once it got to the point where I confronted him, he told me that nobody would believe me, because I'd just graduated college and he'd been there forever. I knew the drill. I told him never to speak to me like that again.

So the next day he came into my cubicle and stood there and said nothing. I almost vomited. He was just staring at me until my coworker that sat one cubicle over walked in and realized what he was doing. She asked what he was doing, and he said he couldn't understand why I was causing problems for him in the workplace and that I'd been gossiping about his marriage around work and ruining his life. She asked him if he didn't think that he could find a better way to get his point across, and he said no and asked her to walk down to HIS office to talk about it.

Once he did that, I went directly to my boss, who then went to HR. I told them I was at the point where I would get nauseated if I heard his voice coming down the hall and hid in the bathroom whenever possible. They ascertained that it was a major impairment on my productivity and apparently the guy had been complained about before.

Three days later he was fired. I watched him carry his stuff to his car with my heart pounding and my armpits burning, scared. But he was gone.

I've also filed a complaint before about hostile work environment, but I did it the day before I quit the job. It was against the VP and a board member, so I knew it wouldn't go anywhere. But I wanted it on record for the next poor employee that came along and had to endure someone walking into their office every day at 8 a.m. sharp, knocking loudly on the wall and saying, "Well, you're here on time, so I can't fire you for that! Be sure and don't make a single mistake today, the economy is bad" then winking and walking off.

EVERY DAY. FOR NINE MONTHS. Ugh. Some people mistake the word Manager for Sadist.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:25 PM on July 23, 2010

A senior manager at my last workplace was fired for sexual harassment. Complaints had been made about him before, but I don't know if he was on an official warning; the final straw involved him making a comment over the radio about one of the junior employees in his department. He thought he could get away with it because he was using a language none of the other managers spoke, but this comment offended multiple people who went together to the other senior manager, and he was out 24 hours later.

The 'yay no more creepy guy we win' factor was diminished somewhat by the knowledge that the previous month two of the popular, useful managers had been offered redundancy or demotion as part of a cost-cutting measure; we figured that regardless of what the head office thought was the right action to take, this way would DEFINITELY save them money.
posted by Lebannen at 6:10 PM on July 23, 2010

We fired a guy for sending pornography on the company network. Recipient complained, he fessed up and was terminated. Clear breach of harassment and IT policy, no notice period, no warning, he was gone.
posted by arcticseal at 9:50 PM on July 25, 2010

I'd say I've personally experienced versions of all of the above and more, in heaping quantities, in the following industries: marketing, leisure sector (breweries), NGOs, the financial sector, IT/automotive industries (think global company), new media, software houses, and academia. Not penny-ante stuff either. With one exception, all of them had plaques and policies declaring themselves really groovy equal-opportunity type froods.

So I don't think it's because I'm in a particularly tough industry. Academia was the only one where I had any recourse in reality as opposed to just theory, though.

What I never got was any indication that all of this wasn't just fine with management. In one case, it was a one-person company, so going to HR wouldn't have been all that fruitful, but still.

To the extent I've been able to find out, all of the culprits are still in situ, and I presume happily bullying, harassing, libelling and defaming to their evil hearts' content as HR and Legal drowse in their laudanum-induced slumber.

I had reached a point where I was ready to accept this as normal and stop expecting to reach some land of milk and honey where people (ideally) don't do this stuff or (at least) don't get away with it.

It makes a big difference to me to learn that a lot of people are shocked by stuff that in many cases sounds not much worse, indeed milder, than what I had gotten inured to elsewhere. Apparently there's not a lot of justice in my world, but there is in others not so far away.
posted by tel3path at 2:43 PM on July 26, 2010

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