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Is verbal abuse in the workplace illegal?

On Behalf of | Sep 25, 2023 | Workplace Discrimination |

A lot of people rise to supervisory, managerial and even executive levels without ever having any real training in how to manage – let alone inspire – those who work for them. Some of these people may be talented and intelligent, but that doesn’t mean they have any people skills or that they are nice.

What if you have a boss who’s a bully? They may know better than to single people out and harass or abuse them based on their race, gender or other legally protected status or to engage in sexual harassment, but they’re verbally abusive on a fairly regular basis. Maybe they’ve singled out you or a few people they don’t seem to like or whom they feel make easy prey to insult and demean. Maybe they’re equally abusive to everyone.

California law and “abusive conduct”

People often assume that must be illegal – especially in California, which has more employee protections than most states. It’s not strictly illegal. State law does address “abusive conduct” but only that it must be covered in sexual harassment training for organizations with at least 50 employees.

The law defines abusive conduct in part as things likerepeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating.” There’s no doubt that a verbally abusive boss or co-worker can create a hostile work environment that can be detrimental to a person’s mental and physical well-being.

What should you do?

No one should have to put up with being the target of abusive conduct or witnessing others being targeted. Your first step should be to address it with Human Resources. If you don’t have an HR department, talk with someone in management besides the abusive person (like their boss). Be prepared with examples and witnesses. Reviewing the law that defines “abusive conduct” may help.

Abusive conduct rarely exists in a vacuum. If your boss is regularly verbally abusive, likely they also sometimes act in a way that does violate employment laws. You can make an even stronger case if you have examples of that as well.

If your attempts to deal with the problem internally don’t work or you suffer retaliation for speaking up, it may help to seek legal guidance to determine what other options you may have.

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