Yes – it may be unwise, but it’s generally not unlawful for a manager to scream, curse, or otherwise act like a jerk towards an employee.
A recent decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates this point well. In Rester v. Stephens Media, LLC, the court affirmed dismissal of a plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim under Title VII based on an incident in which her manager screamed and cursed at her and physically prevented her from leaving the area. 739 F.3d 1127 (8th Cir. 2014). The court described the incident as follows:
Elderton slammed his hands on the desk and began screaming and cursing at her. Rester testified that she rolled her chair back, stood up, and said that she needed to leave, but Elderton put his hands on her three times, and physically prevented her from leaving until she began “wailing and cussing and screaming and hollering.”
In holding that this incident did not give rise to an actionable claim, the court emphasized that the hostile work environment standard is “demanding” and requires “extreme” conduct “rather than merely rude or unpleasant” conduct. The plaintiff must show “that discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult permeated the workplace.” The court held that the single incident alleged by the plaintiff did not meet this standard.
Another reason why the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim failed is because the conduct alleged did “not denote a sexist connotation.” The anti-discrimination laws only prohibit harassment based on certain categories protected by law, such as sex, race, national origin, religion, disability, etc… The conduct at issue in Rester, however, was based on a workplace disagreement, and there was no indication it was based on a protected class status.
In this latter respect, the Rester case was similar to another recent case, Lenzen v. Workers Compensation Reinsurance Ass’n, 705 F.3d 816 (8th Cir. 2013). In Lenzen, the court rejected a hostile work environment claim because the plaintiff could not establish that the manager’s bad behavior was based on her disability. Instead, the evidence showed that the manager “created a hostile work environment for the whole support staff — including for those without any medical conditions.”
Takeaway: Managers who scream, curse, and act like jerks may be undesirable for a host of non-legal reasons, such as employee morale, productivity, and retention. But acting like a jerk is generally not sufficient to create a hostile work environment claim unless the behavior is based on a protected class status and is so extreme that discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult permeate the workplace.