Workplace bullying is defined as repeated, degrading mistreatment at work. Examples of bullying include:
- use of verbal abuse and epithets,
- intimidating or humiliating behavior, including offensive jokes,
- interference with the victim’s work that is unrelated to the employer’s legitimate business interests, or
There is no specific anti-bullying law in California. But California employees have the right to sue the bully or their employer if the bullying becomes workplace harassment or discrimination under the California Fair Employment Act (FEHA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.1
Workplace bullying may violate harassment or discrimination laws when such behavior is based on a protected category to which the victim belongs.
This means that workers have a legal right to take action either when bullying crosses the line into sexual harassment, or when it meets the legal definition of non-sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics like:
- National origin,
- Sexual orientation, or
Below, our California labor and employment attorneys answer the following frequently asked questions about the rights of employees who suffer workplace bullying:
- 1. What is the definition of workplace bullying?
- 2. Is workplace bullying illegal in California?
- 3. What is the difference between workplace bullying and harassment?
- 4. What are my rights if I experience bullying at work?
1. What is the definition of workplace bullying?
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more people in the workplace. Workplace bullying behavior is abusive conduct that falls into one of the following three categories:
- Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating workplace behavior;
- Work interference / sabotage of the person’s work performance; or
- Verbal abuse.
Example: Ramona accepts a new job at a small company. She is replacing another worker who was fired for absenteeism.
Several other employees of the company were good friends of the worker who was fired and resent Ramona for being her replacement. They repeatedly sabotage her work by sneaking onto shared documents on the company’s internal network that Ramona has been working on and deleting her work.
This counts as an abusive work environment, of the sabotage/work interference variety.
Usually, a single act is not considered to count as workplace bullying; instead, the abuse must be repeated. An exception is a single act of bullying that is particularly severe or harsh, such as a physical attack or plausible threat to the victim’s personal safety.3
2. Is workplace bullying illegal in California?
Workplace bullying is NOT actually illegal in California – although certain forms of abusive conduct can be illegal under California law. There is no California statute allowing employees to sue their employers and/or coworkers over cases of bullying at work.4
However, a 2014 California law called AB 2053 does require California employers with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisory employees every two years that includes training on prevention of “abusive conduct” (meaning workplace bullying).5
Also, employees who are victims of workplace bullying may have a legal right to compensation if the bullying crosses the line into workplace harassment. We describe this scenario in the next section.
3. What is the difference between workplace bullying and harassment?
Simply put, “hostile work environment” harassment is workplace bullying that is based on one of the protected categories covered under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (the “FEHA”).
California employees have a legal right to be free from workplace harassing behavior on the basis of any of the following protected classes:
- National origin,
- Physical or mental disability,
- Medical condition or genetic information,
- Marital status,
- Gender identity or gender expression,
- Sexual orientation harassment, and
- Military/veteran status.6
Unlike workplace bullying, harassment on the basis of one of those categories is against California employment law.
Example: Ahmed is the only Muslim and immigrant employee at an auto repair shop. Several of his colleagues regularly make rude, disparaging comments to his face in front of others about his appearance and not being American and ability to do his job. He is also excluded from his colleagues’ social activities. On several occasions the harassers have used ethnic slurs in person and on social media.
The workplace bullying Ahmed is experiencing may actually be hostile work environment harassment on the basis of his religion and nationality.
Harassment itself can take many forms, including verbal (such as threats), physical (such as unwanted touching), sexual (such as unwanted sexual advances), and visual (such as offensive posters).7 And for harassment to rise to the level of a hostile work environment, the bullying must be severe and pervasive. Courts consider such factors as:
- The nature of the conduct;
- How long and how often the harassing conduct lasts;
- The circumstances surrounding the conduct;
- If the conduct was humiliating or threatening.8
And in certain situations, even a one-time incident of bullying can qualify as workplace harassment.9
Victims of harassment have the right to file complaints with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (the “DFEH”) and, in many cases, to file a lawsuit in response to the bullying and harassment. They can sue the person who harasses them. They can also sue their employer if the harassment is committed by a supervisor or if the employer handles the unlawful harassment negligently.10
4. What are my rights if I experience bullying at work?
Even though workplace bullying is not against the law in California, employees who are the victims of bullying at work DO have options. An experienced California labor and employment attorney can help you determine whether the abuse you are experiencing violates California employment law. Sometimes the problem can be solved by going to Human Resources. Other times, legal action is necessary.
For example, the bullying you are experiencing may actually meet the legal definition of harassment. California harassment law is broader than many people realize and encompasses abusive behavior not just on the basis of categories like race and sex--but also on the basis of less well-known protected traits like a medical condition, military status, age, and gender expression.
If your complaints about bullying lead to you losing your job, you may have rights under California “wrongful termination” or FEHA retaliation laws. Or if the bullying you experience includes wage/hour or overtime violations, you have legal rights with respect to those as well.
Finally, speaking with an attorney can be helpful even if the workplace bullying you experience does not activate any specific legal rights given to California employees. Sometimes the knowledge that you are exploring your legal options is all it takes for an employer to start paying attention to workplace bullying and its terrible effect on employee morale (as well as potentially on their bottom line).
If you or loved ones have been the targets of bullying and wish to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California labor and employment attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
All types of bullying are isolating and can cause severe negative effects including low morale, loss of self-esteem, impaired mental health and wellness, and even impaired physical health such as high blood pressure (or worse if there is workplace violence).
Everyone deserves to be in a healthy workplace with zero tolerance for bullying. If your office has a toxic workplace culture, do not wait to seek help from both an attorney to discuss your legal protections as well as a mental health professional to discuss how to restore your well-being.
Our employment lawyers have local employment law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- See Government Code 12940.
- Government Code 12950.1
- See Workplace: California law now requires anti-bullying training, The Press Examiner, June 17, 2015.
- Government Code 12950.1
- Government Code 12940; see also State Dept. of Health Services v. Superior Court (2003), 31 Cal. 4th 1026, 6 Cal. Rptr. 3d 441, 79 P.3d 556.
- California Civil Jury Instructions No. 2523.
- California Civil Jury Instructions No. 2524.
- California Gov. Code § 12923(b).
- Government Code 12965; see, e.g. Roby v. McKesson Corp., (2009) 47 Cal. 4th 686, 219 P.3d 749, 101 Cal. Rptr. 3d 773.