Human Resources News & Insights

Manager training that’s often overlooked: ‘Shut up!’


Some of the most expensive discrimination cases against employers in the last year resulted from managers who said the wrong thing at the wrong time — remarks that carried more weight than even the best documentation.

Good documentation is always crucial. But two cases in particular underscore the idea that managers need to be aware that what they say really does matter — and could become part of damaging testimony in court.

Case: Marcus et al. v. PQ Corp.

Total damages paid by employer: $6.2 million

The details: Two employees, ages 61 and 57, got laid off by a Pennsylvania chemical manufacturer. The two dragged the employer into court and charged they’d been targeted because of their age.

The company’s case had a solid foundation. Funding for the two positions had been eliminated, and so there was a strict financial reason — and no discriminatory basis — for the layoff. The ex-employees argued that the company had manipulated salary budgets so that the older employees would be the first to go.

It looked like a stalemate — which is generally good for a defendant employer — until the the court heard testimony that one manager remarked that the company needed “to get rid of some of these old farts.” And another manager had told the two laid-off employees that company needed more  “young blood.”

Those remarks ended up being the tipping point in a ruling for the employees — that the company had “willfully” discriminated.

Case: Blount v. Stroud

Total damages paid by employer: $3.3 million

The details: During an investigation of workplace discrimination, an African-American female employee who had no involvement in the case stepped forward to present her observation as a witness to the alleged discrimination. After that case was settled, the woman who spoke up was fired.

She charged her firing was part of a pattern of discrimination and retaliation by the employer. The employer pointed to documented, less-than-stellar performance and behavior by the employee as the basis for letting her go. Normally, such documentation is a game-saver for an employer.

And it might have been for this employer, until the fired employee pointed to remarks by her managers after she spoke up during the investigation of the other case. Examples: One manager told the woman, “You don’t know what you’re up against.” Another said the company could “cause you not to exist.”

Hearing those remarks, the court ignored the documentation and found in favor of the fired employee.

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  • Steve

    All of this leaves the question of simple honesty and integrity. I wonder which is worse the organization discriminating outright or the organization discriminating surreptitiously and working hard by “checking all the blocks” to hide the true intent? Perhaps the question is the naiveté of the comment.

  • Jillian

    I agree with Steve. What is scary about this article is not the company payouts it references, but rather, the idea that organizations are ‘checking all the blocks’ to make the terminations stand up in court when the underlying intent of the termination decisions MAY have been anything but ethical. One would hope that the managers in these 2 scenarios are making ignorant statements and speaking out of turn, and that they do not represent the views of the organization itself. One would HOPE . . .

  • amy r.

    It always amazes me what people will say in the workplace! Managers are just as oblivious as the employees that work for them. All this leads to one thing: training employees, managers, etc to respect each other and learn what is un-couth topic of discussion in the workplace. As a former employer and owner of my own firm and now back in the corporate world, I shreek at what I hear employees talk about and do at work and what managers do and say at work. It’s really amazing how everything things their actions and words don’t speak loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s also amazing how much disrepect people have for themselves to allow themselves to stoop so low and thin that no one it listening to “them” like “they” don’t matter!

  • MAC

    The remarks showed the jury that the management team poorly executed disciplinary actions and probably had retaliatory strategies to managing employees, which means they lacked discretion and prudence. It’s a case I will use to train front line and mid level managers on what not to do because aggressive, bullying behavior will never look good in the eyes of others.

  • Michael Schneider

    It seems to me its just a matter of people running thier mouths,Saying things that no one should be saying.If it a wrongful firing or if its a matter of discrimnation its not the place to have anyone saying anything.

  • Randy P.

    People fail to realize that there’s power and freedom (from litigation) in the unspoken word. You can say a lot by saying absolutely nothing. As an HR practitioner, and one who teaches employees HR and the Law, I continue to let people know that you can cost the company millions by using “useless” words. Some people get it, some people don’t. As I close the section on Civil Rights (Acts of 1964 & 1991), I make it a point to let the class know that punitive damage awards are based not so much on the fact that the company broke the law, but those amounts are based on the intent which lead to the law being broken… The courts have made it clear that they’ll be the ones to correct, and subsequently remunerate displayed employees who fall victim to, any “misdirected intent”…. …

  • HelpPlease

    This kind of brings me to an issue I have been dealing with since the start of my employ at where I work now…something I don’t feel is touched enough during my schooling/training. I am in Human Resources and my boss (and everyone else’s boss at this location) uses inappropriate language such as, sh*t & fu*k when talking with employees. And it seems he uses it as a way to intimidate them. He once told me that anyone who believes that fear doesn’t get you respect is full of it…he said that fear always gets you respect…(I obviously 100% disagree & told him so). About 2-3 months ago I sat down with my boss and explained to him how disappointed I am in him and how he is an example setter…so on and so fourth. He agreed with me that he needs to do better and for a few weeks…he did but then slowly he began to act as he always had. I hear from co-workers in the office that this is a normal trait of his and that anyone who reports him or stands up to him gets fired. I have overheard him talk with another manager at a sister company and tell this manager HORRIBLE things about one of his employees…and I have heard him make threats to this employee and even the owner of the company talked with my boss about these things but he received no reprimand from the owner…how can I do anything about it? I guess I am just looking for some advice…there is so much more I could add to this but assume there will not be enough room. To summarize, the owner of our multi-million dollar company is aware of the inappropriate and vengeful behavior that is executed by my boss but yet he does nothing…what should I do!? I have an obligation as the Human Resources Manager to myself and the employees of this company but am not sure how to approach a situation that involves my boss acting inappropriately and the owner being aware of it but not taking action! Thank You!

  • Ron W,

    You are in a tough spot. In my state your boss would be guilty of verbal assault based on the language he uses to address people.

    Of course, you could always leave.

  • HelpPlease

    You are right…I could leave and I am being opened up to such a large liability because I’m not doing anything to solve the situation but I don’t know what more I can do. I just find it hard to leave because I care for these employees and want to help them but its determining how….I don’t mean to sound spineless but I am also afraid of losing my job and where I live they are few and far between.

  • CW

    To Help Please –

    I understand your fear of losing your job, however you have personal ethics to uphold – which you are doing by the way – by approaching this from a “risk management” standpoint. Point out the risks of such behavior and keep your documentation that you did indeed have these discussions. It’s the company’s responsibility to accept or reject your risk management advice. Frankly, I think one reason that people use such bad language is because they have such poor vocabularies. They use profanity because they do not know how to express themselves intellectually and with words that are much more definitive. Perhaps that is something you could point out. Good luck to you!

  • SS

    HelpPlease, if you take action, there will be consequences. If you take no action, there will be consequences.

    You already know the manager’s behavior is inappropriate. You have to decide, based on your principles and needs what you can and will tolerate. Most of us make allowances at work on occasion because we want to keep our jobs, but you have to decide where to draw the line.

    A couple of things to consider if you do nothing:
    • If the company gets sued for harassment, discrimination, etc. you could wind up with a lot of headaches and might wind up losing your job anyway.
    • How miserable will your employees be? How miserable will that make you? And if you’re miserable at work because everyone else is miserable, what kind work-life balance will you have? Is it worth it to keep a paycheck coming in if you’re miserable?

    If you decide you need to do something:
    • I would start with talking to the boss again. He listened before and made temporary changes, so it seems like he’s open to the idea that change is needed. Perhaps share some articles (like those on HR Morning), publications, books or even training classes/seminars that underscore good leadership methods and the harm that can be done with bad behavior by a boss. It may be better to bring about the needed change in small bits, rather than one big, dramatic upheaval.
    • If talking to the boss is not an option or if he just won’t do anything about it, you may have to speak with the owner. You need to have your facts straight and build a compelling and logical case, that will make the owner understand what the boss is doing wrong and how that could negatively impact the business. If the owner is a smart business person, interested in protecting his/her investment, he/she will listen. If not, maybe you should move on and find a better job.


  • HelpPlease

    Thank you to everyone for your comments and thoughts on how to deal with the situation. After further thought I have decided that I will talk with my boss one more time and continue documenting as I have been. If that fails I will confront the owner. In a case where the issue does not get resolved I will make sure to keep my options open if it becomes necessary for me to look for work elsewhere as I cannot morally allow this to go on in my presence. It is unhealthy for all involved.

    Thank you all so much. I apologize for doing my rant earlier but sometimes as the HR person, I feel like I have no outlet or no where to turn, especially when I have a boss like I do. I am somewhat “new” to this line of work, only 3 years out of college so when I read this article it all just spilled out.

    I know what is right, I know what has to be done. It won’t be easy but my job rarely is.

    Thank you all again & Happy Holidays!

  • Bobbie

    13B22: How are you liking your new environment? Is it really better out there?
    Like HelpPlease, I am stuck in an impossible position.

  • Tina

    Help Please, can you tell me how you make out? I am in a similar situation and honestly just waiting for the economy to improve so I can leave.

  • Tina

    don’t leave address on

  • HelpPlease

    I will make sure to post an update once I have one to post that is. Sadly, I am “feeling out” when the right time will be to make my move. It’s truly like a disfunctional family here. There are good days and there are bad days…but mostly bad and it seems go smoother on the good days. I am waiting for one to come around…and hopefully soon so that I can confront my boss on these issues. I feel such pitty and at the same time disgust for my boss. It does seem hopeless but I have determined that I must put my personal issues to the side and I must try again. I am obligated to do so.

    I am sorry to hear that others are finding themselves in a similiar situation. In a selfish way, I am glad to know I am not alone. I am hoping for (but feel it unlikely) a positive outcome from this. First I will be talking directly to my boss. If that fails, which my gut says it will, my goal is to put together enough evidence and even get other employees to fight this with me -(who all feel the same but will not file an official complaint because they do not want to lose their jobs either…we live in a very secluded, rural area…there is not a lot of work.) & people feel safer in numbers, especially with a member of management on their side. If all else fails, I have further choices to make. That part really scares me. And I might have to take things to the next level…I hope not because I care for the owners of this company but what they are allowing to go on is unacceptable!

    I will keep you all posted.


  • HelpPlease

    So my update is…the talk didn’t go over too well & I have accepted a position elsewhere.

  • SS

    At least you know you did everything you could for the employees and the owner. You can move on to the next adventure with a clear conscience. GOOD LUCK!

  • CW

    To HelpPlease –

    Echo SS. You are lucky to have found another position so quickly. Good luck to you.

  • HelpPlease

    Appreciate the responses – I wanted to add that I also spoke with the owner of the company yesterday and passed the plate to him … it went okay but unfortunately it seems money is more important to him than how his employees are being treated … but on the positive side of things I slept GREAT last night because I cleared my conscience and got everything off my chest! I haven’t slept like that in a long time! And yes I am very fortunate to have been offered a job so quickly… or else I would probably continue working here and I just can’t do it anymore…
    Good luck to any of you that have struggles with your bosses…I hope that your outcome is better than mine but you have to try…It was difficult for me but after everything was done I felt at peace with myself.

  • Tina

    Congrats help please, that was the most positive outcome you could have hoped for.

  • Bill

    Steve on Dec. 14 got it right. Is surreptious discrimination better than outright discrimination? I think not. However, “shut up” to the manager is a very good point. You were given two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that ratio.