We often get questions as to whether a boss’s unnecessarily rude and demeaning behavior (without anything more) is, in itself, actionable harassment. Well…it depends!
Having a rude, demeaning, or outright hostile boss represents an all-too-common misery that can turn work into a demoralizing ordeal, and turn your job into outright dread. However, at what point does a manager's unpleasant tendencies and hostile attitude cross the line into outright illegal conduct under California law?
There’s No Law Against Being a Jerk: Lawful Cruelty Versus Unlawful Bias
Navigating the fuzzy boundaries between obnoxious supervision and outright discriminatory animus represents a key challenge for California employees seeking to assert their rights. Unfortunately, the law provides little recourse solely for bosses exhibiting hostile dispositions without connecting to protected classes (race, religious, disability, etc.) or a protected activity (whistleblowing, complaining about unpaid wages, etc.).
For example, consider a boss who always bursts out shouting over errors, constantly makes snide comments about appearance, belittles staff over small mistakes or questions the integrity of those calling in sick. While such behaviors clearly violate basic courtesy and policies governing workplace conduct, they generally do not constitute retaliation or unlawful harassment absent evidence that the actions connect to protected class bias or retaliatory animus. The offensive conduct breaches respect but does not violate California discrimination law in isolation. Many employers maintain generic anti-bullying policies under which such mistreatment warrants warnings or discipline. However, no grounds exist for a lawsuit since no evident unlawful bias or retaliation for a protected activity occurred. In short: there’s no law against just being jerk, but there are plenty of laws of being a jerk on the basis of a protected characteristic or activities.
The analysis changes considerably when abrasive conduct intersects with protected class status, reflecting likely unlawful bias. For instance, a boss:
Mocking older workers’ technological abilities constitutes potential age harassment;
Denying disability accommodations indicates possible disability discrimination;
Enforcing dress codes primarily against female staff reflects potential gender bias;
Deliberately setting an employee up to fail because she complained about illegal conduct in the workplace.
In these scenarios, the objectionable actions directly target employees based on protected characteristics in apparent violation of FEHA protections or other protections afforded by the Labor Code. The conduct crosses into unlawful harassment and discrimination territory as opposed to generalized hostility falling short of illegality.
While it may be frustrating and emotionally draining to deal with a difficult employer, not all instances of rudeness or unpleasantness warrant a legal claim. Understanding the boundaries of California employment law is essential for recognizing when behavior crosses into unlawful conduct.
Remember: discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on protected characteristics or protected activities are prohibited under the law. Keeping thorough documentation and seeking legal guidance can help you navigate the process, protect your rights, and take appropriate action to address unlawful employer behavior.