RUDE, CRUDE AND SOCIALLY UNACCEPTABLE Lawfully Dethroning the Workplace Despot « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles

RUDE, CRUDE AND SOCIALLY UNACCEPTABLE Lawfully Dethroning the Workplace Despot

We all agree disruptive workplace incidents distract from harmony and productivity.  One of the more prevalent and sometimes inadequately addressed workplace disruptions concerns rude, boorish employees.  Their bullying can include personal insults, verbal attacks, inappropriate teasing and sarcasm, belittling another’s intelligence or capabilities, and maligning someone’s reputation through gossip and rumor-mongering.

Is Rude Workplace Behavior Unlawful?  Although California has adopted anti-harassment laws, it has yet to enact “civility” laws.  Several states have attempted such regulation, including California’s unsuccessful Healthy Workplace Bill of 2003.  By declaring all abusive workplace conduct unlawful, such bills seek broader protection for employees facing workplace harassment, regardless of whether the abuse was directed to an employee belonging to a protected classification (race, gender, national origin, religion, etc.).  Even without such formal prohibitions, employers may be at risk for ignoring bullying behavior.

Potential Legal Theories Targeting Workplace Bullying:  Although there is no anti-bullying law in California per se, affected co-workers have filed claims under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or workers’ compensation laws claiming such bullying created stress and anxiety.   Employees targeted by bullies have also sued employers for damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress allegedly caused by such bullying incidents.  Employee suits alleging such harassment was linked to a protected classification are also common.  In EEOC v. Nat’l Educ. Ass’n, a male allegedly acted in a particularly obnoxious fashion towards his female subordinates, often screaming profanities and physically intimidating them, while reportedly treating his male subordinates in a more playful, bantering fashion.  The court found harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of sexual discrimination.  Even if the bully’s target is of the same gender, the victim might successfully sue for unlawful sex harassment. In Singleton v. United States Gypsum Co., John Singleton’s male co-workers allegedly engaged in workplace bullying by insults and sexually explicit gestures and comments.  The appellate court found Singleton could have been harassed because of gender, even though the alleged workplace bullies were also male.

How to Resolve Co-Workers’ Complaints:  The wrong thing to do is ignore such a situation.  Granted, it’s logical to presume all workers are mature, responsible adults.  However, even where the bullying in the workplace does not seem based on some protected classification (age, religion, national origin, etc.), don’t just assume people can and should work these matters out by themselves.  Treat these bullies in the workplace complaints just as seriously as a claim for sexual harassment or other harassment on a protected classification.  Investigate in a thorough and neutral manner with the intention of truly addressing and handling the problem.

How to Confront the Bully:  Of course, do not overreach to unnecessarily documenting the accused wrongdoer’s every shortcoming, big, small, or microscopic.  The person in question could later attempt to characterize over-documenting as attempts to create false grounds for terminating him or her.  The best approach is to ensure workplace policies clearly state what code of conduct is expected at the workplace, including how workers are to behave with one another.  If an employer finds an individual has crossed the line and is potentially engaging in office bullying, show him or her the appropriate workplace policy, discuss the resolution, and discipline and document accordingly.  Any resolution should include the appropriate corrective training.  Always apply company policies consistently and fairly: don’t single out certain individuals for bullying behavior while ignoring others.