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New California Law Requires Workplace Anti-Bullying Training

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 direction.

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 harassment.

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, and retaliation.

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.

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