How to Handle the Office Bully

What are your rights?

Back Web Only May 6, 2015 By Coral Henning

Hi Law Librarian, I recently read a piece in Comstock’s about workplace bullying. My coworker (different department, higher level of seniority, same gender and race) is very aggressive towards me. She yells at me, calls me names, has thrown a stapler at me and once locked me out of the office while we were both working late (even though my car keys and belongings were inside). I have reported this to my supervisor twice in the past, but nothing has changed. It’s getting to the point where I have constant anxiety about being in the office with her and feel if this continues I’ll be driven to quit my job, which I love. Is there any legal recourse I can take?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. However, according to a presentation I recently attended, many workers in situations that sound similar to yours have been filing claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, claiming “hostile work environment” harassment regardless of whether the offensive behavior is actionable under the law. This takes time and money and slows things down for everyone, so I would not advise doing it unless you are sure the offensive behavior directed toward you is illegal.

Bullying in the workplace (or just plain harassment) is not yet illegal in the United States. Several countries, including England, Sweden, Australia, France, Canada and Germany, have laws banning workplace oppression, and there is a movement to make bullying in the workplace illegal here.  Currently, the only “hostile work environments” illegal under federal and state law must be based on the harassment of persons in a protected class, such as:

It does not sound like this is the case in your situation.

An organization called the Workplace Bullying Institute is leading the way in advocating for anti-bullying-in-the-workplace bills. They have written a bill that has been introduced in 29 states, although no legislature has yet enacted it. The WBI’s Healthy Workplace Bill would allow targets to sue perpetrators and, in some cases, their companies. You can keep up with the bill’s progress in the states here.

Although California was the first state to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill in 2003, it has never been passed. Last September, however, California became the first state to require employers to train their workers on the problem. As of January 1, 2015, all companies with 50 or more employees must include information on preventing “abusive conduct” in their biannual sexual harassment trainings. The new law, Assembly Bill 2053, offers no remedy to targeted employees, and the WBI says it’s not a substitute for the Healthy Workplace Bill. But others are confident that stronger state legislation will pass in a year or two.

Related: This Time, It’ Personnel

Other California anti-bullying in the workplace actions are also taking place: At least 80 California cities and towns issued proclamations last October declaring a “Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week.”

In your case, if the bullying becomes physical (throwing a stapler at you could, under certain circumstances, be considered assault), you could always sue your coworker. It is also possible, under certain circumstances, that the incident where he locked you out of your office while you were both working late, even though your car keys and belongings were inside, could be considered false imprisonment. That would certainly require more research, and I would advise you to contact an attorney before pursuing any lawsuits. But suing a coworker would certainly make things more, rather than less, stressful at work. I wish there were other alternatives for you.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email comstocks@saclaw.org


Recommended For You


Catty Chatting

When you need to reprimand a digitally dubious employee

I manage a group of about 13 people, and we communicate via instant messages. I have one employee who persistently bad-mouthed me in online conversations. I confirmed that he was aware that I could see his messages, and I told him I saw messages that concerned me. Since then, he’s disengaged from his job and is only doing the bare minimum. I feel I should address this with him, but I’m unsure of how to do so.

Nov 5, 2014 Suzanne Lucas