Bullying in the California WorkplaceWorkers should be able to earn a living in a safe and secure environment. You should not face threats, harassment, or bullying on the job based on your race, gender, age, or any other protected characteristic. Employees in California are protected against workplace bullying under a number of different laws.

California employers have a duty to ensure that their workplace is free from unlawful bullying. If you or your loved one was subject to a hostile workplace environment because of bullying, please do not hesitate to reach out to an experienced Los Angeles employment lawyer for immediate legal guidance.

Workplace Bullying California: The Laws Protecting Employees

California employees are protected against workplace bullying under several state and federal labors laws. Among other statutes, you may be protected from workplace bullying under:

In some areas, state and federal laws overlap. In other cases, these laws protect a different subset of employees. Notably, employers in California are required to follow the relevant law that provides the greatest protection for workers. In most cases, that law is the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The FEHA generally offers the greatest level of protection to employees in California.

Understanding Protected Characteristics

Only certain characteristics are protected under California’s anti-workplace bullying laws. You cannot file a legal claim simply because a manager or co-worker was ‘rude’ or ‘mean’. As unpleasant as that may be, it is not necessarily legally actionable.

However, if you were subject to bullying based on a protected characteristic, you may have a hostile work environment claim. Some common protected characteristics include:

What Actions are Considered to Be Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying comes in a wide range of different forms. It could include anything from overt threats to jokes and teasing. Workplace bullying does not require ill intent on the part of the bully. One person’s ‘jokes’ may be damaging bullying to another person.

In most cases, California courts consider whether or not the ‘bullying’ created a hostile work environment for the victim. To prove that a hostile work environment existed, a plaintiff must generally establish one of the following three things:

  1. The bullying created a significant disturbance in the workplace;
  2. The bullying affected the employee’s ability to perform their job; or
  3. The bullying substantially undermined the employee’s sense of well-being.

In considering whether or not a hostile work environment existed, California courts will consider the severity of the conduct, the pervasiveness of the conduct, and the overall context of the workplace.

The more severe, more frequent, and more unusual the bullying behavior, the more likely that the victim was subject to a hostile work environment for which their employer should be held legally liable.

Workplace Policies and Practices That Can Lead to Bullying

The culture of an organization can increase the risk of bullying among its employees. 

Workplace cultures that can lead to bullying include: 

  • Lack of diversity among employees,
  • Highly competitive environments where employees compete with each other,
  • High-stress and demanding jobs,
  • Layoffs and job insecurity, and
  • Disorganization.

Employer practices can also create an environment in which workplace bullies emerge. Examples of employer practices and policies that can lead to bullying include: 

  • Leadership that takes part in abusive behaviors,
  • Lack of strong value statements and policies against workplace abuse,
  • Management that does not investigate allegations of abuse, 
  • Not implementing procedures for holding bad actors accountable,
  • Holding some employees accountable for bullying but not others, and
  • Failing to provide regular training to employees. 

According to a report issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), certain employer practices can also prevent workplace abuse. Two key practices to preventing bullying include:

  • A commitment to positive corporate values and 
  • Having systems and procedures in place to hold employees accountable for workplace abuse.

The full 2016 EEOC Report is available here

Suing for Workplace Bullying

Can you sue for workplace bullying? 

While you cannot sue for workplace bullying alone, you may be able to sue for workplace bullying when it rises to the level of harassment.

One form of workplace harassment that employees can sue for is hostile work environment harassment. California hostile work environment laws allow employees to sue employers or individuals for severe or pervasive harassing conduct that created a hostile work environment.  

Harassing conduct includes: 

  • Verbal harassment (e.g., obscene language, demeaning comments, slurs, or threats);
  • Physical harassment (e.g., unwanted touching, assault, or physical interference with normal work or movement);
  • Visual harassment (e.g., offensive posters, objects, cartoons, or drawings);
  • Unwanted sexual advances; or
  • Other forms of harassment (e.g., derogatory, unwanted, or offensive photographs, text messages, Internet postings). (California Civil Jury Instructions No. 2523)

An employee can sue for harassment when the harassing conduct is severe or pervasive. Whether the conduct is severe or pervasive depends on: 

  • The nature of the conduct;
  • How often and for how long the harassing conduct persists; 
  • The circumstances surrounding the conduct; 
  • Whether the conduct was threatening or humiliating. (California Civil Jury Instructions No 2524)

Although the law generally requires more than one incident of harassing conduct, California Gov. Code § 12923(b) states that a single incident of harassing conduct may be enough to show a hostile work environment. 

Preventing Workplace Bullying

California also requires that employers provide employee training and education to prevent harassment and abusive conduct.

The law defines abusive conduct as “conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.” (Cal. Gov. Code § 12950.1). 

Abusive conduct can include, for example:

  • Verbal abuse (e.g., “derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets”);
  • Conduct that is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating to a reasonable person; and
  • Sabotaging or undermining another’s work performance.

The law requires that such abuse occur repeatedly. Unless the abuse is particularly severe, “[a] single act shall not constitute abusive conduct.” 

What the California law calls “abusive conduct” is defined in the same terms as workplace bullying. 

The Healthy Workplace Campaign defines workplace bullying as repeated acts of:

  • Verbal abuse;
  • Threatening, intimidating, or humiliating behaviors; or
  • Interference or sabotage that prevents another from getting work done.

So while the law does not allow employees to sue an employer for “bullying” exactly, it does require that employers take active steps to prevent conduct that is essentially bullying.

Contact Our California Hostile Work Environment Attorneys Today

At Workplace Rights Law Group LLP, our Los Angeles employment law attorneys have extensive experience handling hostile work environment claims. If you were subject to bullying in the workplace or any other form of a hostile work environment, your employer may be liable.

To find out more about what we can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact our law firm for a free, fully confidential initial consultation.

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