Fear of liability is putting a stranglehold on common sense

We've probably all known a boss or co-worker who is both mean and incompetent. Why are some of these people allowed to retain their jobs?

One of the most common questions I get from TechRepublic members is: "How do you deal with a mean co-worker or boss?" And if the reaction I get for the blogs I write about workplace bullying is an example, there are a disproportionate number of a-holes out there pulling down a check.

There is no excuse for bullying or obnoxiously mean behavior in the workplace (or anyplace else). I don't care if the attitude comes out of arrogance or low self-esteem.

Why do people get away with this kind of behavior? Sometimes it's because the offending employee offers the company some unique gain and the bosses just consciously ignore the behavior. I think that most of the time, however, people are just too afraid to deal with the issue.

At one company I worked for there was a manager who had a near mutiny on his hands with a staff that found it almost impossible to deal with him. One by one, his staff members went to this man's boss to complain about him but nothing happened. The reason given? There was no high turnover in the department. In other words, if these employees hated the situation so badly why wasn't everyone leaving in droves?

At another time and another company, there was a woman who headed up a centralized department. Pretty much every other department had to depend on her department in one way or another. But she was a double-whammy. Not only was she rude and condescending but she had the added bonus of utter incompetence. It was like she knocked back a fifth of Jack every morning before her breakfast of coffee and nails. So when she screwed up, which was pretty much constantly, and you tried to get things straight, you had to deal with the attitude. It was a serious drain on productivity.

And everyone, from the receptionist to the top office, knew this. When you complained about her, you'd hear a chuckle and then "Yeah, she's a tough one to deal with." It was like the Twilight Zone. And this went on for years. So, why was this allowed to happen?

Because I've seen one too many Lifetime movies, my first theory was that somewhere in a safety deposit box in a bank in Switzerland she had a cache of pictures of the CEO cross-dressing. But then after I got my hysterical, bad-movie suspicions under control, I gave some serious thought to other possibilities.

I will concede that employees in another department don't always see the real picture. Maybe this woman was so good at one part of her job that her bosses chose to ignore the parts she sucked at.

Maybe her bosses were genuinely afraid of her. If an employee is hell on wheels when you point out an error, you can imagine what she'd be like if you fired her. (That's no excuse, though.)

Then I have to wonder whether this woman was allowed to carry on as she did because, well, she was a woman. The people she reported to were men. And I think that those guys were so afraid of doing anything remotely discriminatory, that they didn't do anything at all. That's unfortunate, but it's understandable.

Sometimes the abundance of cautionary information can make you mistrust your own common sense. There has been such an abundance of information for business leaders about why you can't fire someone; I just wish there were the same on why you can fire someone.