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New Employment Law Alliance Poll: Nearly 45% of U.S. Workers Say They've Worked for an Abusive Boss

March 21, 2007

The grade school bully may have grown up to become the office oppressor, according to a new U.S. poll released today by the Employment Law Alliance – the world’s largest network of employment and labor lawyers to which Miller Canfield belongs as Michigan and Ontario’s representative. The poll found that nearly 45% of American workers say they have experienced workplace abuse.

The poll examined abusive behavior by supervisors, not typically regarded as serious enough to warrant special legal protections afforded to racial, religious, or gender discrimination, and reflects a growing recognition that abusive bosses are more than an annoyance. Employees will increasingly demand that the problem be addressed.

“Whether it makes sense for employees to be able to file lawsuits against abusive bosses – the way they can over discrimination due to race, sex, age, disability or other prohibited factors – is a different question,” said Miller Canfield labor and employment lawyer Kurt N. Sherwood . “It would be far better for employers to select and train supervisors to eliminate the abusive boss.”

Michigan is not among the states currently considering workplace bullying legislation, but sometimes lawsuits claiming sex or race discrimination, for example, are really about a bullying boss.

“Take the case where the plaintiff claimed her boss was mean to her, yelled at her, treated her in a dismissive and demeaning manner. She claimed that his treatment was sexual harassment, but there wasn't evidence to show that the boss treated anyone else any better,” said Beverly Hall Burns , a labor and employment attorney at Miller Canfield. “Responsible employers don't want to have to defend their management’s actions with the ‘my guy is a jerk but he's a jerk to everyone’s defense.”

Burns said the situation is similar in Ontario, where Miller Canfield has a Windsor office. “Only a few months ago, the Ontario Court of Appeals affirmed damages in the context of a disability case,” she said. “The employer’s conduct was found to be ‘reprehensible’ and abusive, meriting $100,000 in punitive damages.”

In response to the poll results, Dr. Sutton, professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford University Engineering School, where he is co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization said, “This national survey adds to the growing mountain of evidence showing that abuse of power is a rampant problem in the American workplace. It is time for senior management to realize that this conduct damages their people and is costing them a fortune. Demeaned workers respond with a reduced commitment and loss of productivity, and they run for the exits to find more humane bosses. And these costs will keep escalating as more victims realize that they can fight back in court.”

Highlights of the poll include:

• 44% said they have worked for a supervisor or employer who they consider abusive.
• More than half of American workers have been the victim of, or heard about supervisors/employers behaving abusively by making sarcastic jokes/teasing remarks, rudely interrupting, publicly criticizing, giving dirty looks to, or yelling at subordinates, or ignoring them as if they were invisible.
• 64% said that they believe an abused worker should have the right to sue to recover damages.
• Southern workers (34%) are less likely to have experience with an abusive boss than are their Northeastern (56%) and Midwestern (48%) counterparts.

About the Employment Law Alliance & America at Work Poll
The Employment Law Alliance is the world’s largest integrated, global practice network comprised of independent law firms distinguished for their practice in employment and labor law. There are member firms in all 50 U.S. states, every Canadian province and over 75 countries. Miller Canfield is the ELA representative for the state of Michigan and province of Ontario.

The poll, conducted under the supervision of Dr. Theodore Reed, president of the Philadelphia-based Reed Group, was based on a survey of a representative sample of 1,000 American adults within the past two weeks. Detailed interviews were conducted with 534 full or part time workers. The confidence interval for this sample size is +/- 4.24%. For further information, including access to the survey charts and graphs, visit

Miller Canfield was established in Detroit in 1852 and employs more than 800 in offices in Michigan, Florida, New York, Canada and Poland.

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