On January 1, 2015, a California law took effect placing additional obligations on employers in preventing workplace bullying.
California state law already required employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisors with sexual harassment training upon their assignment to a supervisory position and at least once every two years. The new law requires these employers to include training on bullying or “abusive conduct” in the workplace as a part of the sexual harassment training program.
Abusive conduct is defined broadly under the law as “conduct of an employer or employee, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.” The definition includes the following examples: the use of derogatory remarks or insults; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; and gratuitous undermining of a person’s work performance.
The law does not create a private right of action for employees, and therefore employees may not sue their employer or bring a charge of discrimination for “abusive conduct.” But the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing may take action to enforce employer compliance. Employers with 50 or more employees in California should review their training programs to ensure the training provided to supervisors adequately addresses “abusive conduct.”
Many employers already prohibit a broad range of inappropriate conduct, including offensive and threatening behavior, under their workplace policies. However, courts addressing Title VII and other discrimination claims have repeatedly held that Title VII does not impose a “general civility code” for the workplace. The new California law suggests a potential trend toward expanding protections for employees in the workplace beyond those traditionally provided by Title VII and state anti-discrimination laws. Although no other state in the country has imposed legal requirements for private employers in responding to workplace bullying, in 2014, Tennessee passed the Healthy Workplace Act, which encourages public agencies to establish policies to recognize and address bullying and other abusive conduct in the workplace. In addition, various forms of legislation addressing workplace bullying have been proposed in more than 20 states over the past 10 years. The passage of this new law in California could spark further consideration of laws that prohibit, or at least attempt to limit, bullying in the workplace.
If you have questions about the implications of the new California law or workplace bullying, please contact a member of Faegre Baker Daniels’ labor and employment practice.