Workplace Bullying Prevention at Heart of New California Law Requiring Additional Training

California is often a bellweather for other states, so resident blogger and HR consultant Robin Paggi is here to tell us about a new law in the Golden State imposing new training requirements on employers to prevent workplace bullying.

New Law Requires More Training

When I conduct harassment prevention training, I am often asked questions like the following: Is it harassment when my boss yells at me? Does it create a hostile work environment when my co-workers make fun of me? My answer has been, not unless that behavior was directed at you because of being in a protected class (for example, because of your race, color, sex, sexual orientation, or other protected class). However, Governor Brown just signed a piece of legislation (AB 2053) that might require me to change my answer.

Before I tell you about the legislation, let me tell you this: while it is against the law to harass people at work (such as making disparaging remarks about co-workers because of their race), it’s not against the law to be a jerk (such as making disparaging remarks about a co-worker’s ideas, work performance, new haircut, that type of thing).

Courts have repeatedly decided that the state and federal laws that make harassment illegal were not intended to make everyone be nice to each other. According to one California Court of Appeal, our state anti-harassment law (the Fair Employment and Housing Act) was “not designed to rid the workplace of vulgarity,” and that the effort to impose a civility code in the workplace, with “human nature being what it is, would be an exercise in futility.” Even bullying in the workplace is not illegal unless it meets the definition of harassment.

Evidently, that’s why AB 2053 came into being. According to the article, “Workplace Bullying Legislation Imposes New Training Requirements for Supervisors” at www.aalrreducationlaw.com, “Spurred by studies regarding the damaging effects of workplace bullying on employees, including reduced productivity, morale, higher absenteeism rates, and frequent employee turnover, California Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez proposed (the bill), with the goal of addressing the issue of workplace bullying.”

AB 2053 requires that people like me who provide harassment prevention training include information on how to prevent “abusive conduct” in the workplace.

According to the legislation, abusive conduct 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 of undermining of a person’s work performance.”

While the legislation does not make abusive conduct (basically bullying) illegal, it easily lays the groundwork for legislation that does.

AB 2053 goes into effect on January 1, 2015, but I’m not waiting until then. Here’s the advice I’ll now provide in training on how to prevent bullying in the workplace:

  • Create a policy against bullying (describes what bullying is, prohibits bullying, tells employee of the right to complain without fear of retaliation, tells employee who to complain to in addition to direct supervisor, explains investigation procedure and disciplinary action).
  • Distribute the policy to employees when an open discussion can occur about it. Let employees know that the intent of the policy is to promote a healthy work environment for all employees.
  • If a complaint is made, conduct an impartial investigation.
  • Take disciplinary action if appropriate.
  • Ensure complainant is not retaliated against.

Additionally, tell managers and supervisors that:

  • If they see or hear bullying behavior– stop it!
  • Take all complaints or incidents seriously.
  • Respond immediately (tell their supervisor or HR, but otherwise don’t talk about it).
  • Document what happened.
  • Don’t retaliate or allow others to do so.

So, while being yelled at or made fun of is still not harassment (if it is not directed at someone because of being in a protected class), such actions might meet the definition of abusive conduct. And, while abusive conduct is not illegal at the moment, it probably will be in the near future.

Robin Paggi is the Training Coordinator at Worklogic HR.

Robin’s last column for this blog was on the art of motivating employees.

Prior to that, she wrote about do’s and don’ts of friendships at work.

Prior to that, she wrote about  keeping and maintaining employment records.

Before that, she wrote for this blog on the topic of fashion rules do’s and dont’s.

She has also written on making sure terminations are not related to romance.

For other prior columns by Robin appearing in my blog, click here, here, here, and here.

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