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Workplace Bullying in California: Is it Illegal?

January 29, 2024

Workplace bullying in California encompasses a range of abusive conduct aimed at belittling, intimidating, or undermining an individual or group. Unlike the more overt forms of workplace harassment that are explicitly illegal under California and federal law, bullying can be subtle and insidious, often flying under the radar of legal scrutiny, since there is no specific anti-bullying law. At its core, workplace bullying involves repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees. This can include:

  • Verbal Abuse: This is one of the most common forms of workplace bullying and can include shouting, swearing, mockery, or insults directed at a target, often under the guise of 'joking.'
  • Social Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from professional and social interactions that are relevant to their work.
  • Professional Sabotage: Interfering with a person’s work in a way that is not related to the employer's legitimate business interests or setting them up to fail, overloading them with work, or stealing or taking credit for their ideas.
  • Intimidation: Using threats, scare tactics, or overtly aggressive behavior to instill fear or enforce obedience.
  • Cyberbullying: Using email, social media, or other digital platforms to harass, intimidate, or belittle colleagues outside of the physical workplace.

These behaviors, when sustained over time, can create a hostile work environment, affecting not only the targeted individual's mental and emotional well-being but also their job performance and career progression. It's important to recognize these behaviors early and address them promptly to maintain a respectful and healthy workplace.

Key Laws Providing Protection

  1. California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
    • Prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on protected characteristics (e.g., race, gender, disability).
    • Covers behaviors that could be seen as bullying when they are directed at an individual because of a protected characteristic.
  2. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    • Federal law preventing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including in employment settings.
    • Relevant for situations where bullying might target an individual's physical or mental disabilities.
  3. Civil Rights Act of 1964
    • Specifically, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
    • Applies to bullying-related behaviors that involve discrimination or harassment related to these categories.

While these laws do not explicitly mention "workplace bullying," they form a framework that can address and protect against bullying behaviors when they are part of discriminatory practices or create a hostile work environment. Employers in California are encouraged to develop policies and training that prevent bullying, promoting a respectful and safe workplace for everyone, which also helps avoid potential legal issues related to discrimination and harassment.

Identifying Bullying at Work

Early identification of workplace bullying can prevent escalation and foster a healthier work environment. Here are common indicators of bullying behavior:

Signs of Bullying

  1. Consistent Verbal Abuse
    • Repeated insults, mockery, or derogatory comments.
    • Public humiliation in front of colleagues.
  2. Intimidation
    • Threatening behavior, physical or non-physical, aimed at instilling fear.
    • Aggressive gestures or invasion of personal space.
  3. Social Exclusion
    • Deliberately isolating someone from professional interactions or social activities relevant to work.
    • Ignoring or marginalizing a person during team meetings or discussions.
  4. Professional Sabotage
    • Interfering with someone's ability to work, such as withholding necessary information or resources.
    • Undermining work performance by overloading with tasks or setting impossible deadlines.
  5. Unwarranted Criticism
    • Excessive, unjustified criticism of someone's work or efforts, often in a public setting.
    • Constant negative feedback without constructive purpose.
  6. Cyberbullying
    • Sending harassing emails or messages.
    • Posting derogatory comments about a colleague on social media.

The Importance of Early Recognition

For employees, recognizing these signs is the first step towards addressing and stopping bullying. Documenting instances, seeking support from HR, or consulting legal counsel can be essential actions following the identification of bullying behaviors.

Employers, on the other hand, play a key role in creating an environment that discourages bullying, by acknowledging complaints, conducting thorough investigations, and taking appropriate actions against bullies. Implementing clear anti-bullying policies and training can help prevent such behaviors from taking root in the first place.

Steps to Take if You're Bullied at Work

Experiencing workplace bullying can be deeply unsettling. If you find yourself in this situation, you need a clear and structured plan. Here are some tips:

  1. Document Everything: Start by keeping a detailed record of all bullying incidents, noting down dates, times, descriptions, and any witnesses. This documentation is vital, serving as evidence should you need to escalate the matter.
  2. Understand Your Company's Policies: Familiarize yourself with your workplace's policies on bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Knowing these policies inside out will guide you on how to formally report the bullying incidents and what to expect from the process.
  3. Report the Bullying: Reporting the behavior is a critical step. Depending on your company's policy, this could mean speaking to your manager, HR, or a designated bullying contact officer. Be clear, concise, and provide any evidence you've collected.
  4. Seek Support: Don't go through this alone. Talk to trusted colleagues, friends, or family members about what you're experiencing. Professional support, such as counseling, can also be beneficial to help you cope with the emotional toll of bullying.
  5. Consult With an Employment Attorney: If the bullying is severe, ongoing, and your company's response is inadequate, it may be time to seek legal advice. An attorney specializing in employment law can offer guidance on your rights and the best course of action.
  6. Consider External Complaints: Should internal avenues fail to resolve the issue, you might need to look outside your company. This could involve filing a complaint with relevant state or federal agencies, such as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), especially if the bullying violates elements of harassment or discrimination laws.

To address workplace bullying effectively you first need to understand your rights and then take proactive steps to document and report the behavior. You should  seek support both within and outside your organization.

When and How to Seek Legal Action

Workplace bullying can significantly impact an individual's well-being and performance. When bullying exhibits certain traits, it may cross the threshold into illegality.

When Bullying Becomes a Legal Matter

The critical factor that elevates workplace bullying to a legal issue is the presence of harassment or discrimination based on protected characteristics as defined by state and federal laws. These characteristics include but are not limited to race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, and religion. Under California employment law with the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) employees have broad protections against harassment and discrimination in based on these and other protected categories.

Bullying becomes a legal matter when it:

  • Involves discriminatory treatment or harassment based on any protected characteristic.
  • Creates a hostile work environment, making it difficult for the victim to perform their job effectively.
  • Results in adverse employment decisions, such as wrongful termination, demotion, or denial of opportunities, based on discriminatory factors.

Seeking Legal Advice

If you believe your experience of workplace bullying includes elements of discrimination or harassment, or if your attempts to resolve the issue internally have been unsuccessful, it may be time to seek legal advice. Here are some considerations when consulting with an employment attorney:

  • Understand Your Situation: Before meeting with an attorney, organize your documentation of the bullying incidents, including any communication with your employer about the issue. This will help the attorney assess your case accurately.
  • Research Attorneys: Look for attorneys who specialize in employment law, particularly those with experience in handling cases of workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation to discuss the basics of your case.
  • Prepare for the Consultation: Be ready to explain your situation clearly and provide any evidence you have, such as emails, witness statements, and records of your complaints to HR or management.
  • Discuss Legal Strategies: During your consultation, discuss potential legal strategies and outcomes. A knowledgeable attorney can guide you on the best course of action, whether it's filing a formal complaint, mediation, or litigation.
  • Consider the Costs: Legal action can be costly and time-consuming. Discuss any fees, timelines, and the attorney's assessment of your chances for a successful outcome. Sometimes, the goal may be to reach a settlement or to negotiate a resolution that doesn't involve going to court.

An experienced employment lawyer can provide invaluable guidance and support to strengthen your case and the potential outcomes.

Preventing Workplace Bullying: For Employers

Employers play a key role in creating a safe workplace and need to take proactive steps to discourage bullying behaviors. Here are some best practices that employers can implement to prevent workplace bullying:

Develop Clear Anti-Bullying Policies

  • Establish Clear Definitions: Clearly define what constitutes bullying in the workplace, including examples of unacceptable behaviors.
  • Outline Reporting Procedures: Provide a straightforward and confidential process for employees to report bullying incidents.

Conduct Regular Training

  • Employee Training: Educate employees about what workplace bullying is, why it's unacceptable, and how to report it.
  • Management Training: Train managers and supervisors on how to recognize signs of bullying and how to respond effectively to reports of bullying.

Build a Culture of Respect and Accountability

  • Lead by Example: Leadership should model respectful behavior and actively participate in training sessions.
  • Encourage Open Communication: Create channels for open and honest communication, where employees feel safe to voice concerns.
  • Implement a Zero-Tolerance Policy: Make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated and that reports of bullying will be taken seriously and investigated promptly.

Regularly Review and Update Policies

  • Policy Review: Regularly review anti-bullying policies and procedures to ensure they remain effective and relevant.
  • Feedback Mechanism: Establish a mechanism for feedback on the work environment and the effectiveness of anti-bullying measures.

Support Victims and Address Bullying Behavior

  • Support Systems: Provide support to victims of bullying, including access to counseling or mediation services.
  • Disciplinary Actions: Ensure that there are clear consequences for bullying behavior, which may include disciplinary actions up to and including termination.

Promote Diversity and Inclusion

  • Diversity Training: Incorporate diversity and inclusion training into regular employee development to foster an understanding and appreciation of differences.
  • Inclusive Policies: Develop policies that support a diverse workforce and promote inclusivity at all levels of the organization.

These best practices will have a profound effect on the workplace environment. Beyond the legal implications, preventing workplace bullying is first and foremost about protecting employees and providing a safe work environment.

If You Are Experiencing Workplace Bullying

For those experiencing workplace bullying, The Law Offices of Jeremy Pasternak is here to help. With extensive experience in employment law, we understand workplace bullying and are ready to support you through this difficult experience. Don't navigate this alone; reach out to us for guidance on how to protect your rights and ensure a respectful work environment. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and take the first step toward resolving your situation.

Additional Resources:

https://workplacebullying.org/help4targets/

https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/on-the-spot

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