DISCLAIMER: This post gives a general overview of unlawful workplace harassment. It is not legal advice, and I am not your attorney. If you require information or advice applied to your unique situation, please make an appointment to discuss it with an attorney in your jurisdiction.
Workplace harassment and bullying at work are more common than most executives realize. Even in professional work environments, interactions among co-workers and between supervisors and employees can occasionally become heated and challenging. This leaves many workers wondering about if the behavior they experienced was legal.
Understanding Unlawful Workplace Harassment in New York State
New York State boasts some of the most protective laws for employees regarding discrimination and workplace harassment. Yet even in NY a single incident of yelling at an employee in front of other employees is probably insufficient evidence of unlawful harassment. There are situations where bosses might be justified in yelling at an employee. For example, they might yell at someone to stop them from doing something dangerous. Bosses might also yell back at employees who are yelling.
After all, bosses are human, too.
Analyzing Discriminatory Harassment
When assessing allegations of discriminatory harassment in the workplace, context is key. Yelling alone is not inherently illegal. However, if a pattern emerges where a boss consistently targets individuals based on their gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity, or religion, it raises red flags. Discriminatory behavior often leaves behind patterns and evidence that suggest unlawful conduct. This might include:
- Inferior Employment Conditions. Some bosses not only yell at certain employees but also grant them fewer hours and opportunities while making discriminatory comments. This can be indicative of a pattern of discrimination based on protected characteristics.
- Slights That Are More Than Petty. Not every workplace incident is harassment or legally actionable. An isolated instance of yelling during a hectic period may be unprofessional but not necessarily unlawful. However, if similar incidents recur, especially targeting one specific individual, it could be legally significant.
What to Do When Faced with a Yelling Boss
How employees should respond to their bosses yelling at them depends on the context and frequency of such incidents. Here are some steps to consider:
- Remove yourself from the stressful situation. Free your emotions how and where you can do so without causing harm. Then, objectively evaluate what happened. A mentor once told me that our feelings are not a reliable test for reality. In other words, feelings are valid, and we need to feel them to free them. But we must also recognize that the brain’s amygdala can play tricks on us.
- Recognize Trauma Responses (in yourself and your boss). Understand that past experiences can influence our reactions to situations that seem similar. All humans can have exaggerated responses to even petty slights when they remind us of other experiences that hurt us. If we’ve had many such experiences, the likelihood of a big, painful response is even greater. This is why trauma-informed management has become so important. However, we need not rely solely on managers for trauma-informed support.
- Take an honest look at both sides of the situation. This doesn’t mean accepting or placing blame. That can be a wasteful distraction. The goal is to understand your contribution to the conflict, whether you contributed aggression, passivity, confusion, or something else.
- Open a Conversation. Your instinct might be to avoid your boss after such an incident and harbor resentment, but communication is still key. Initiate a discussion with your boss to understand why it happened, express your perspective, and find ways to prevent similar incidents in the future. You will both often come out of such a difficult conversation better than you went in. It’s almost always worse in our heads (including your boss’) than it is in reality.
- Seek Resolution. If your boss is unwilling to engage in a productive conversation and the work environment remains unwelcoming or hostile, it might be time to consider other employment options. Effective employment should be a mutually beneficial partnership, and when that balance is absent, it may be in your best interest to move on.
While a boss raising their voice may not always constitute unlawful workplace harassment, it’s crucial to analyze the context and patterns of such behavior. Addressing the situation through open and respectful communication is often the first step towards resolving workplace conflicts and maintaining a positive employment relationship. Seeking legal counsel for specific situations is also essential to ensure you protect your rights effectively.