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Workplace Bullying: What You Need to Know

Most people have heard or experienced the dreaded bully at work.  Whether the bully is the boss, your supervisor or a co-worker, nothing creates a toxic work environment, morale killer and high turnover rates faster than a bully causing chaos and fear in the office.

Everyone in the workplace and beyond, from the Human Resources professional, business owner, employee, supervisor, to an attorney advising employers or employees, should understand the issue of bullying in the workplace.  Or you may be the person who has to figure out what to do about claims that an employee is being bullied at work.

“Bullying” is everywhere in the news, with schools and social media taking a leading role in setting up programs and training to recognize, intercept and stop bullying. Thus, it is no surprise that the demand to take on bullying in the workplace has now risen to the level where California employers are now required to train managers to recognize abusive conduct and take action.

Even where discriminatory bias or harassment is not the reason for the conduct – the bully appears to be equally abusive to just about everyone at work- workplace bullying should not be tolerated or condoned, nor should any employee have to deal with it period.  Even when the behavior is just plain rude, discourteous or insulting, which are not per se legally actionable, distasteful behaviors can and often do result in high employee turnover, tremendous employee discontent at work, and ultimately can create a toxic work environment.

Employers should also be fully aware that bullying in the office will wind up in social media commentary for immediate public consumption on websites such as, Yelp and Glass Door to name a few. Even a cursory review of these sites will quickly reveal that toxic work environments are a hot topic of reviews and ratings for employers everywhere.  Often the reviews will be reports of instances of employees enduring temper tantrums, personal attacks, verbal abuse and career undermining behavior by workplace bullies.  Current and prospective employees and sometimes clients visit these sites and make decisions based on what they discover about an employer there.

What Employers Can Do

So what’s an employer to do? First, don’t allow bullying conduct in the workplace – at the very least employee morale and productivity will plummet with a corresponding spike in employee turnover, and at worst you are very likely at some point to be sued (rightly or wrongly) by an employee who claims they were bullied.  Remember, with so much emphasis on bullying in the workplace receiving such attention, even rude (but not necessarily bullying) behavior can cause your company to face a claim of bullying.  The best defense is to recognize a conflict when it starts, encourage open discussions and dialogue on the issues, and make sure those in charge have the proper training to step in and resolve these problems from the start.

If the bully is a supervisor consider one-on-one counseling to change behaviors and learn positive approaches before they and/or the employer become targets of a lawsuit.  Make sure your employee handbook has guidance to employees and explains what to do.  If you are sued and the case goes to trial, good luck trying to defend the unchecked behavior of a workplace bully in front of jurors who have undoubtedly either personally experienced or witnessed first-hand the wrath of a workplace bully or even just been the recipient of rude/abrasive, but not bullying behavior.

What Employees Can Do

From the employee’s perspective, what should an employee do?  Review your employee handbook (if your employer has one) to understand your employer’s policies and procedures for dealing with complaints.  If your employer does not have a specific policy, start with your immediate supervisor and/or HR department, and ask for help to deal with the bully.  While it can be difficult and challenging to bring these issues up, unless management is aware of the bullying it cannot take action to end it.  If you are not sure where to go, ask your supervisor what the company protocol is for dealing with these issues and ask them to investigate.

If you are in the unfortunate position of having a bully for a boss, you will likely have to go directly to your HR department.  If you believe you are being targeted for abuse because of your race, gender, religion, marital status, sexual orientation or other protected class, you may have additional options such as filing a claim with the California DFEH (Department of Fair Employment and Housing) and/or with the Federal equivalent the EEOC.  Finally, you might also find it helpful to speak with an attorney (most employment attorneys who represent Plaintiffs will provide a consult for free) to get guidance about how to resolve the issue and your options for dealing with a bully at work.

Kere Tickner is a Partner with  Bremer, Whyte, Brown & O’Meara, we handle all aspects of Labor and Employment law for both employers and employees, and we are here to help you with any of your workplace needs. Kere can be reached further with questions at or (949)221-1000.