As a law office, we often receive calls about supervisors and other coworkers bullying employees. Often times, employees want to know if they are able to file a lawsuit for bullying they have experienced in their workplace. Several examples of calls we have received with complaints of bullying are related to supervisors screaming at their employees, verbally abusing them, insulting them in front of other colleagues, unfair criticism, threatening them, excluding others, being called incompetent, character assassination, having unrealistic expectations, lying on performance evaluations, or purposely criticizing employees on their work performance to diminish their self esteem. Some examples of bullying from colleagues include unwarranted criticism, being sworn at, being excluded or isolated from the group, someone taking credit for your work product, or being intentionally being excluded from emails or meetings that would hinder an employee’s ability to perform his or her job. While these acts are often subtle, if the actions occur multiple times, it can be deemed as mistreatment of an employee and a type of bullying. Some more obvious and aggressive actions that may be deemed as bullying is searching through a colleague’s belongings, stalking, and spreading rumors or gossiping. The motive of bullying tactics is to establish control and power over an employee.
Research has shown that bullying in the workplace has caused extreme harm to the health of employees which include heightened anxiety, depression, hypertension, cardiovascular issues, autoimmune disorders, amongst other health issues. The downside for companies is that bullying results in high absenteeism, increase in workers compensation claims, and reduced productivity. However, to date, no state in our country has enacted an anti-bullying law in the workplace that protects employees despite the increasing epidemic amongst the workforce. Bullying is only illegal if the perpetrator is targeting an employee based on his or her protected class, such as age (if over 40 years old), gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or national origin.
One thing that California has done to progress towards safer working environments of employees is enacting AB 2053 on January 1, 2015, which requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide abusive conduct prevention training along with the already required sexual harassment training. California Government Code section 12950.1(g)(2) 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.” However, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) only protects against bullying towards a protected class of people.
If you are being bullied and believe that you are a target due to your protected class as categorized by FEHA, there are certain actions that you can take to remedy the situation. First off, you should make a formal complaint to Human Resources of your employer immediately of the bullying so that your employer can try to remedy the situation. It is suggested that any type of formal complaint be in writing so that you can keep a record of your communication. Ideally, your employer should have a Code of Conduct in the employee handbook that protects such behavior from occurring in the workplace. Employees are always hesitant about filing a formal complaint with the employer regarding any incident of bullying. Typically, the unwillingness to file these complaints is out of fear of experiencing any adverse action or creating more conflict in an already uncomfortable working environment. Other times, the employee is unwilling to complain because he or she does not want to be perceived as “weak” or to be “causing problems.”
It is illegal for an employer to fire an employee for making a complaint regarding bullying if the bullying is based on a protected class such as gender, age, ethnicity, race, etc. It is also illegal for your employer to retaliate in other ways, such as cutting back hours, cutting pay, or keeping resources withheld from an employee that has complained in order to keep him or her from being able to perform their job duties. Other subtle types of retaliation is ignoring an employee who has filed a complaint with the intent to make them feel like they have done something wrong, responding to the complaint by telling them to “suck it up” or “it’s not that big of a deal,” or acting upset with the employee for “creating more stress” for a manager. Any action or words that make an employee feel guilty for filing a complaint can be deemed as retaliation.
An employee may file a claim for bullying if it is based on a protected class on California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) website. If you have filed a formal complaint with your employer and the bullying is still occurring, you have one year from the date of the discriminatory act to file a complaint with DFEH. Upon filing the complaint, a DFEH investigator has 60 days to contact you to discuss your claim. Remedies for filing a complaint with the DFEH include back pay, being reinstated to your position, reasonable accommodation, policy changes, promotion, or out of pocket expenses.
Unfortunately, we receive many calls regarding employees who have been working for companies for many years to find themselves under new management and feeling bullied by their new supervisor. We often receive calls about employees feeling like they are being pushed out because the new management does not seem to like them or have an agenda to hire their own staff. Unfortunately, being on the receiving end of the call, we are unable to help as far as taking any legal action because the actions themselves are not deemed illegal unless the bullying is based on a protected class such as gender, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. The best course of action would be to contact upper management or a human resources manager so that they are aware of the issue and are able to investigate the issue and perhaps prevent the bullying from occurring. If you believe you have been a target for bullying in the workplace based on a protected class, you should call an experienced employment attorney that can help you. Bullying is not something that should be endured in a work area, especially when continuous exposure to volatile and hostile environments can lead to emotional and psychological stress that will affect one’s health and disrupt family life.