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Fall/Winter 2021, Topic of the Quarter

Workplace Bullying and Hostile Work Environments” by Jonathan Watson

With the new year looming, did you know that January 2022 will be Mental Wellness Month? Furthermore, did you know that our parent organization Solano County Library has Mental Health Initiative Kits that you can check out? It is hoped that, in the new year, Solano County Law Library’s blog postings might address various aspects of mental health and wellness from a legal viewpoint.

To kick off the effort, this posting will focus on workplace bullying and hostile work environments. As stated by Ma (2018), workplace bullying may be defined as:

“…‘situations where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behavior from one or more colleagues (including subordinates and leaders) and where the targeted person is unable to defend him-/herself against this systematic mistreatment.’ It is a ‘form of persistent abuse where the exposed employee is submissive to the perpetrator.’”

According to Redman, a bullied employee can experience depression, PTSD, and panic attacks, as well as physical effects such as chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome. How is a hostile work environment defined? To paraphrase sections from California Civil Practice: Employment Litigation (West), there are elements needed to “establish a prima facie case” for a hostile work environment such as the plaintiff being a part of a protected group (e.g., sexual orientation, race, and disability) and the harassment was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment…”

The same source describes a scenario in which an employee can create a hostile work environment by engaging in severe or pervasive harassment. Accordingly, if the employer does not want to be held liable under Title VII [42 USC §2000e-2(a)(1)], it would be prudent for them to remove the employee causing the hostile work environment from the workplace. If the employer fails to do so, they have not remedied the harassment. As quoted in the source, according to Cal. Code of Regulation §§7286.6(b) [renumbered as 2 CCR § 11009], “an employer is liable for hostile environment harassment not only by it directly but by supervisors, managers, or agents where committed within the scope of employment or the employment relationship”.  

The piece “The differences between workplace bullying and a “hostile work environment” (The National Law Review, 2020) elaborates on how the legal topics diverge. There are even references to cases such as Turley v. ISG Lackawanna Inc. et al. in which the plaintiff was awarded $25 million due to the racist treatment that he experienced that was not stopped by his employer.

To research more on these legal concepts, be sure to visit Solano County Law Library and explore our print and electronic resources. You can also view self-help resources such as Your Rights in the Workplace via Legal Information Reference Center at either Solano County Law Library (in-person) or Solano County Library (online access available with a Solano County Library card). The information provided in this posting is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice. Please consult with a legal expert for the best guidance.

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