Ask a Lawyer: My Boss is Abusive!

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Ask a Lawyer: My Boss is Abusive!

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My supervisor is a bully. He picks on me for seemingly no reason, humiliates and embarrasses me in front of my co-workers, and constantly threatens to cut my pay. This harassment is causing me to be depressed, anxious and sick to my stomach. Do I have any legal recourse?

Not yet. Under current California law, there is generally no legal remedy for abusive conduct that is not linked to the victim being a member of a protected class related to race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability, among others. In particular, the anti-discrimination laws do not protect victims of an obnoxious manager who picks on everyone.

Acting With Malice

New laws might be coming, however. Several European countries already protect workers from workplace bullying. Here in the United States, more than a dozen states have considered — but not passed — the Healthy Workplace Bill. This bill, if enacted, would protect workers from an “abusive work environment” defined as where “the defendant, acting with malice, subjects an employee to abusive conduct so severe that it causes tangible harm to the employee.”

Abusive Conduct

The definition of “abusive conduct” could include:
• verbal abuse, such as insults and put-downs
• conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating, or
• sabotaging an employee’s work performance.

A company would not be held liable, however, if it could show that:
• It exercised reasonable care to promptly prevent and correct the abusive conduct, and
• The employee did not take advantage of preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Workplace bullying is a widespread problem gaining increasing attention. The law has not quite caught up yet.


Amy Semmel is a partner with the firm Kelley & Semmel, where her practice focuses on employment law.  The information discussed here is a general explanation of the law, and is not intended to serve as legal advice. 

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