October 7th, 2014
California lawyers respond to new abusive conduct training law
Law Takes Aim at Workplace Bullying, Raises Questions
By Laura Hautaia, Los Angeles Daily Journal, Sept. 17, 2014
What counts as bullying in the workplace?
While the concept may be relatively new, managers will have to undergo training on preventing abusive conduct at work once a new law goes into effect in January. The training will come along with other required lessons on preventing sexual harassment and discrimination, but it’s different in one important way: bullying isn’t illegal in California. For now.
Attorneys say AB 2053, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in August, might open the door to making abusive conduct illegal, opening a new category of liability for employers.
“There’s a feeling that there should be a way to prevent that kind of destructive behavior, because it does hurt people when it’s extreme enough, and it causes economic damage,” said Margaret H. Edwards, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson PC who has researched the advent of anti-bullying laws worldwide.
At the moment, the required training might still come into play in a court case if workers sue for harassment or intentional infliction of emotional damage in the workplace, attorneys said.
Whether or not employers provided adequate training on abusive conduct, said Chaya M. Mandelbaum, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe who represents workers, “could be a very relevant piece in looking at the culture of the workplace.” Edwards said the new requirement heralds wider recognition of bullying as a problem that can be addressed with laws. Indeed, other states are considering bills that address bullying in schools, and Tennessee passed a law encouraging public employers to create anti-bullying policies.
What’s more, she noted, laws have passed in Canada, the UK and Europe that address bullying in the workplace. “I think part of this is because of work that has been done that comes out of the harassment arena and a desire to try to address destructive behaviors in the workplace that don’t quite fall into the traditional harassment and discrimination categories,” Edwards said.
Some of that work has been done by Gary Namie, a Washington State social psychologist who advocates for anti-bullying legislation. He worked to get a more comprehensive law banning workplace bullying in California in 2003, but the law didn’t pass. Namie said his organization, the Workplace Bullying Institute, talked with California Assemblywoman Lorena Gomez as she authored AB 2053, but that the resulting bill was watered down from what he hopes to see eventually become the law.
“The law is a baby step toward recognizing the impact of workplace bullying defined as abusive conduct,” Namie said. Namie compares abusive conduct at work to domestic abuse. Rather than isolated incidents of cruelty, he said, bullying is a pattern that systematically beats down an employee.
Employment attorneys agreed with this description. “It’s vicious a lot of times,” said Kathryn B. Dickson. What’s more, she said, everyone at the workplace can suffer when bullying takes place. “It has impact on morale and productivity.” But Dickson also noted that while the law defines abusive conduct, naming it in the workplace might still be difficult.” “It gets very mushy around the edges,” she said. However, she compared the task of defining workplace bullying to the questions that surrounded the idea of sexual harassment when it was first litigated in courts. “People said how are we going to say what harassment is? That worked out.”
One test case emerged in 2006, when a judge in London ruled in favor of a former employee of DB Services (UK) Ltd., a UK subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, who said she was systematically bullied at work until she suffered two bouts of Major Depressive Disorder. In a detailed, 46-page decision, High Court Justice Robert M. Owen said the bullying was harassment under the country’s Protection from Harassment Act of 1997, and that the company should have done more to prevent it.
The plaintiff, Helen Green, said coworkers engaged in “petty” bullying conduct and went out of their way to exclude her from conversations, lunches, work-related email chains and more. Green even recounted that one coworker made a raspberry sound every time she took a step while walking across the office. “Many of the incidents that she describes would amount to no more than minor slights,” Owen wrote. “But it is their cumulative effect that has to be considered.” What’s more, the company was privy to information about Green’s mental health history and could have known she would be vulnerable to such bullying, he ruled.
Such situations aren’t uncommon in American workplaces, plaintiffs’ attorneys said. Mandelbaum said many people call seeking legal representation, only to learn what they experience at the hands of a coworker or supervisor is not illegal. What’s more, often it’s bullying that motivates someone to sue for sexual harassment or discrimination in the first place, he said. “It’s that kind of conduct that underlies their feelings and their motivation to go through what they need to go through to enforce their rights legally.” Mandelbaum said.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 at 12:42 pm and is filed under Healthy Workplace Bill (U.S. campaign), Workplace Bullying Laws. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.