Workplace Bullying in California - How Employees Can Fight Back

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment at work. Workplace bullying can include

  • verbal abuse,
  • intimidating or humiliating behavior, or 
  • interference with the victim's work.

There is no law against workplace bullying in California. But California employees have the right to sue the bully or their employer if the workplace bullying violates workplace harassment or discrimination laws such as the California Fair Employment Act (the "FEHA").1

Workplace bullying may violate harassment or discrimination laws when it is based on a protected category to which the victim belongs.

Workplace bullying on the basis of race or sex may rise to the level of illegal workplace harassment.

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 categories like:

Below, our California labor and employment attorneys answer the following frequently asked questions about the rights of employees who suffer workplace bullying:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. What is the Definition of Workplace Bullying?

 The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more people in the workplace. Workplace bullying is abusive conduct that falls into one of the following three categories:

  1. Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating behavior;
  2. Work interference / sabotage; or
  3. Verbal abuse.

Example: Ramona accepts a new job at a small company. She is replacing another worker who was fired.

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 workplace bullying, of the sabotage/work interference variety.

Usually a single act is not considered to count as workplace bullying; instead, the abuse must be repeated. The 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. 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 training to supervisors every two years that includes training on prevention of "abusive conduct" (meaning workplace bullying). (This training is to be provided along with sexual harassment prevention training that employers are required to provide as part of their strategy to prevent harassment in the workplace.)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 harassment on the basis of any of the following protected traits:

  • Race,
  • Religion,
  • Color,
  • National origin,
  • Ancestry,
  • Physical or mental disability,
  • Medical condition or genetic information,
  • Marital status,
  • Sex,
  • Gender,
  • Gender identity or gender expression,
  • Age,
  • Sexual orientation harassment, and
  • Military/veteran status.6

Unlike workplace bullying, harassment on the basis of one of those categories is against the law under California employment law.

Example: Ahmed is the only Muslim employee at an auto repair shop. Several of his colleagues regularly make rude, disparaging comments to his face about his appearance and ability to do his job. He is also excluded from his colleagues' social activities. On several occasions colleagues have used ethnic slurs. 

The workplace bulling Ahmed is experiencing may actually be hostile work environment harassment on the basis of his religion..

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 or--if the harassment is committed by a supervisor or the employer handles the harassment negligently--their employer.7

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.

Though workplace bullying is not against the law, bullying victims sometimes have another basis for legal action.

For example, the bullying you are experiencing may actually meet the legal definition of workplace 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).

Call us for help...

For questions about workplace bullying and employees' rights in California, or 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.

We 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.

Legal References:

  1. See Government Code 12940 
  2. Same.
  3. Government Code 12950.1 
  4. See Workplace: California law now requires anti-bullying training, The Press Examiner, June 17, 2015.
  5. Government Code 12950.1 
  6. Government Code 12940 
  7. Government Code 12965 

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