Employers have a lot on their plate. They have employees and payroll, they have state and federal laws to follow, they have customers and vendors, and the last thing they want to hear is that they now have to worry about rogue-supervisors or rogue-employees who create a hostile working environment by being "abusive." And now, the California employer asks, "What does that mean?! And can I be on the hook for it?"
Well, yes and no- but mostly no. So, what does it mean? No one is quite sure yet, but here's what we know:
The Healthy Workplace Bill
In 2014, Governor Brown signed a bill called the Healthy Workplace Bill trying to get employers to be aware of abusive conduct (a.k.a. "bullying") in the workplace. The bill requires certain employers to add to their sexual harassment training a component to prevent abusive conduct.
While it is a benevolent gesture by the legislature, it carries the threat of a grey whale. There are absolutely no ramifications for failing to prevent abusive conduct in the workplace.
Take for instance, a CEO who is just a miserable human being. This CEO calls Employee "X" and co-worker "Z" names such as "stupid and stupider." He does things like calling a meeting and when Employee X is came into the room, he puts his hands their face and said "stay out here," and sat through the anti-bullying training to say to Employee X, "Remember this, you bully."
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Maybe the owners of the company should be taking action against the CEO. But why? It's not illegal to be a jerk. As long as he's an equal-opportunity jack-ass, the employer isn't liable (generally).
Where the line is drawn
The problem arises when the employee being bullied is a woman and the male CEO bullies women more than men. He tends to bully the minority employees more than the white employees. But all in all, he bullies everyone to some extent.
Since it's not illegal, why change him? If he's getting the job done and the company is making money because of him, then there is no impetus to terminate him.
But where does the law go from here? Where will the law go? What will the employment lawyers do with this new "training" if there are no repercussions to the behavior?
Employee-side lawyers will be fighting for the next few years trying to turn this into something stronger than it is. Employer-side lawyers will spend a great deal of time with their clients, counseling them on what to do with that "jerk" supervisor everyone complains about. In the end, the employers will be best served by getting in touch with a good HR consultant or employment lawyer to proactively prevent such claims.
The lesson to be learned here however is that the cost of doing business should not include litigation. Employers should make every effort to comply with laws, not just as they are written, but their spirit. In the case of the Healthy Workplace Bill, employers should try to curb the bullying conduct of their workers simply to avoid the cost of hiring an attorney to defend against the claims.