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Careers My boss’s jokes are thinly disguised abuse. What should I do?

THE QUESTION

My boss for years has talked down to his employees. For the most part, he's tolerable. We have an open dialogue between everyone in the office where we say stuff to each other that we probably shouldn't. But sometimes you can tell he's not joking and is just really being abusive. What's the proper course of action?

THE FIRST ANSWER

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Colleen Clarke

Corporate trainer and author of Networking: How to Build Relationships That Count, Toronto

Organizations have personalities. A tone is set by the employees from Day 1. If lewd jokes were told and tolerated in 1972, chances are they are still being told today, though most likely tolerated less.

Diversity and the presence of four generations in the workplace have a lot to do with what is tolerated today and what is not. In Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, there is legislation that guarantees employees a safe and healthy workplace.

The tone in your office will only change when someone voices a complaint through the proper channels, and it only takes one person and one complaint. If your boss has gotten away with his behaviour for this long, it sounds as if it has more to do with his manner and personality than personal attacks. But if no one is willing to call him on his behaviour, he will just carry on.

It is not your place to take him to task, however, unless the attacks are made on you. He could make your life miserable and likely not care what you think. It should be done by his superior or human resources. If they don't do anything, you can go to your provincial labour board. Start documenting every instance for evidence.

THE SECOND ANSWER

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Bill Howatt

Chief research and development officer, workplace productivity, Morneau Shepell, Halifax

Gossiping or complaining will not solve this problem. Your manager has a history of this type of behaviour and most likely will not stop without being confronted.

If you believe the manager's behaviour can be described as "vexatious comment, or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome," the proper action is to explore your options to confront and stop the unwelcome comments and behaviour. Whether the intention is malicious or not is irrelevant. This type of behaviour is defined as workplace harassment, and in provinces such as Ontario, the employer has a legal duty to stop it.

One approach is to confront the manager and follow a three-step plan: Define the problematic behaviour with specific facts. Make it clear what needs to stop (for instance, the language and tone). Set expectations as to when and why.

If you don't feel confident or safe doing the above, discuss your concerns and facts with your human-resources personnel or senior leadership. If the boss is the top person in the company, there still are options such as discussing the situation with an employment lawyer and checking out your provincial occupational health and safety legislation.

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The stakes are high.

Some employees who are victims of this kind of behaviour may be at risk of experiencing acute stress that can negatively affect their mental health. When a person such as your manager is confronted, it can often become a powerful awakening and driver of change. Regardless, the end goal is to stop the abusive behaviour. The risks to organizations that have leaders who behave this way include legal action and loss of talent.

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