Is Bullying Harassment?

02 October 2017 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Authors: Krista M. Cabrera

California is oft thought of as a trailblazer in the arena of sexual harassment law. Because California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act mirrors Title VII, practitioners and employers in other states often look to California cases and laws regarding sexual harassment for guidance.

One area that has created a stir nationwide is California’s latest addition to its statute regarding mandatory sexual harassment training for supervisors. The state now mandates training on the subject of “abusive conduct,” otherwise known as bullying, in addition to training on sexual harassment avoidance. While “abusive conduct” is not illegal in and of itself, this addition to the law’s training requirements has created speculation as to whether legislation may be coming down the pike deeming bullying illegal.

Add to this discussion a new California appellate court decision, Levi v. The Regents of the University of California. In that case, the plaintiff was a neuro-ophthalmologist who claimed that the department chair sexually harassed  her by standing above her and banging his fists on his desk while threatening to fire her and by yelling at her on various occasions.  She also presented evidence of the department chair engaging in similar hostile and intimidating conduct against various co-workers.  The court, however,  refused to accept the plaintiff’s invitation to characterize “bullying” as harassment, and held that because there was no evidence that this conduct was because of the plaintiff’s gender, there was no harassment under the law.

Of course, bullying in the workplace is something that employers should seek to eliminate and prevent for a variety of reasons, such as fostering an inclusive work environment, keeping morale levels high, and ensuring that everyone works to their potential. However, the Levi case makes it clear that the kind of conduct we think of as bullying is not currently illegal harassment in most jurisdictions. Nevertheless, California’s recent sexual harassment regulations make it clear that companies must provide training regarding abusive conduct and avoiding bullying behavior.  The question remains – what does the future hold, and will the California legislature decide to codify its anti-bullying stance?

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