Is workplace bullying illegal? The short answer is no. However, a new California
law signed last week by California Governor Brown takes a baby step in that
On its face, the law says nothing about bullying. It requires employers
with 50 or more employees to include the prevention of "abusive conduct"
as a component of training that is already required in the area of sexual
Under existing law in California, this training is required of all supervisors
within six months of the time they become a supervisor, and then is to
be repeated every two years. The training must cover federal and state
statutory laws regarding prohibitions against sexual harassment, remedies
available to victims, how to prevent and correct sexual harassment, discrimination,
The new law requires the training to include a component regarding prevention
of abusive conduct, which is defined 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. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of
verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets,
verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening,
intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining
of a person's work performance. A single act shall not constitute
abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious."
The bill was supported by the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council,
which stated that abusive work environments have become an epidemic throughout
the nation. It cited a recent Zogby poll which found that 27 percent of
Americans have suffered abusive conduct in the workplace, while 21 percent
have witnessed it.
Apparently the requirement that the additional training component be appended
to sexual harassment training is in recognition of the fact that bullying
often goes hand-in-hand with such harassment. As we all know, however,
bullying is prevalent in virtually all types of workplace contexts and
may be totally devoid of any sexual element. The problem, though, is that
it can be very subjective, and thus extremely difficult to prove. Hence,
making it illegal would probably open a can of worms for both employers
and employees and would create a legal minefield for both.
Appropriate training can't hurt, and at least workplace bullying is
being recognized as a problem that needs addressing. But keep in mind
that under current law in California and in New York, it is not illegal
unless sexual harassment is also involved.