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What is “Workplace Bullying” in California?

Written By: Mo Eldessouky Updated On: December 22, 2023 | Read Time: 7 Minutes

Bullying is something that can happen in any environment. Someone decides that they don’t like someone else and begins targeting them with the intent to bully them. Insults and disparaging remarks, sabotaging, starting rumors, pranking, and undermining reputations are all unfortunately common behaviors, even in the workplace. It can occur one-on-one or a group versus one person. Bullying can occur when there is a power imbalance or between equals in rank. It can sometimes be brushed off, but often, workplace bullying can make the target’s life miserable.

If you have been the target of workplace bullying, or know someone who is being targeted, where do you draw the line? How do you stop a workplace bully, and is the law on your side? With the help of California employment lawyers, you can determine when and how to stop workplace bullying when the bully goes too far.

Can You Stop Workplace Bullying with the Help of a California Employment Lawyer?

Yes, you can stop workplace bullying by hiring an employment lawyer.

While there is no law against being mean or rude in the workplace, there are laws that can stop workplace bullying when it crosses a line. Bullying becomes illegal when it becomes rooted in the target’s protected identity factors, when it creates a safety risk, or when it can be classified as fraud. An experienced California employment lawyer can help you identify when workplace bullying has crossed the line and seek justice, either inside or outside the organization.

Your lawyer can also hold your employer responsible for allowing, encouraging, or turning a blind eye to the workplace bullying that has taken place. Eldessouky Law is here to advise on how you can take legal action to stop workplace bullying. Contact our office at 714-409-8991 or fill out one of our contact forms online.

When Does Workplace Bullying Become Illegal?

Sometimes, work environments develop cliques, fueds, and personal conflicts. This is not against the law. Workplace bullying becomes illegal when the actions of the bullies cross the line into illegal and protected activities. There are generally four lines that workplace bullying can cross which will make the actions of the bullies illegal, and the employer liable for stopping the behavior: Descriimnation, sexual harassment, safety risks, and fraud.

  • When Workplace Bullying is Discriminatory
    • The bullies target a person’s protected identity, such as race, religion, gender, family status, etc.
  • When Workplace Bullying is Sexual Harassment
    • The bullying is sexual in nature
  • When Workplace Pranks Create Safety Hazards
    • The bullies’ actions create an unsafe work environment
  • When Work Sabotage Becomes Fraud
    • Falsification of work, records, finances, etc.

Workplace Harassment and Discrimination

The most common type of illegal workplace bullying is when bullying becomes workplace harassment. Legally, workplace harassment is defined as any mistreatment that stems from or attacks a person’s protected identity markers such as:

  • Race, Color, and Ethnicity
  • Culture or National Origin
  • Religion
  • Gender or Sex
  • Sexuality (LGBT)
  • Family Status
  • Disability

As soon as bullies begin to mock someone or base their actions for one of these aspects of their identity, the bullying activity has become illegal. It’s one thing to dislike a coworker and to be rude about it. But it’s illegal to attack a coworker for their cultural origins, the color of their skin, their disability status, or who they build a family with.

If workplace bullying crosses this line more than once, or once with great severity, legal action can be taken to stop the bully and hold the employer liable for not taking internal action to stop the ongoing harassment.

Workplace bullying that comes from a superior can also take the form of pure discrimination, even without insulting remarks or cruel actions, if it is reveled that denied opportunities stem from prejudicial feelings.


  • A bully often makes fun of their coworker in the break room, and their mockery often includes mimicking the person’s accent, which is a result of their language of origin or disability.
  • A manager has targeted one employee to insult, call stupid, and refuse to promote. This evolves into remarks about how the person’s culture or ethnicity results in incompetancy.
  • One member of a team is often excluded from coworker social gatherings. Their coworkers often make dispariaging comments about their lifestyle such as having children or a same-gender romantic partner as the reason they should not attend.
  • A bully blocks off the handicap ramp or elevator to force their disabled target to struggle or ask for help.

Sexual Harassment in the Form of Workplace Bullying

It is unfortunately common for sexual harassment to be overlooked as workplace bullying. However, as soon as harassment is sexual in nature, it has become illegal. Unwanted touching, sexual remarks, sexual gestures, and starting sexual rumors about a person in the workplace are all illegal forms of sexual harassment and the target (or someone on their behalf) can take legal action to make it stop.

This includes bullying of a sexual nature, even if the bully is not trying to initiate sex with the target. Same-gender bullies who steal clothes from the locker room or accuse a coworker of sexual behavior are engaging in sexual harassment, even if they are not personally trying to have sex with the target of their bullying.


  • A person goes out of their way to annoy a coworker. They stand in their way or make “annoying” comments, but the comments are often sexual in nature
  • Someone constantly starts sexual rumors about their target, suggesting that they are easy to sleep with.
  • A bully often makes sexual gestures directed at a coworker when their back is turned. They suggest this is for comedy but the context is always sexual.

The Dangers of Sabotage and Pranks in the Workplace

Office sitcoms have normalized the idea of pranking a disliked person in the workplace. However, pranks can all too easily cross the line into health and safety risks. Sabotaging someone’s chair or desk, for example, can cause them to fall and result in serious injury. Leaving things for someone to stumble over or sabotaging a box that someone will lift, these are only the tip of the iceberg. The more hazardous the work environment or cruel the prank, the more dangerous it becomes.

While the bullies may aim simply to frustrate their target or make them look bad, their actions become illegal as soon as they intentionally create an unsafe work environment. If this becomes a pattern, or if at any time they cause an injury, they and a tolerating employer become legally liable for the unsafe working conditions.

In some cases, creating a safety hazard may also qualify as harassment of someone with a disability if the bully is targeting something that makes their victim more likely to stumble or struggle physically in a situation that most could more easily navigate.


  • A bully removes one wheel from a coworker’s chair so that they fall when they sit down.
  • Someone places in obstacle in a hallway where their bullying target will be carrying a large box to see them trip
  • Trailing an extension cord across the path of someone who is known to walk with their feet close to the floor due to a mobile disability
  • Precariously placing items on a shelf so that they fall on the victim when they go to retrieve them
  • A bully tampers with the food of their target in a way that makes them sick

When Work Sabotage Becomes Fraud or Non-Compliance

Lastly, some types of bullying sabotage can even be classified as fraud. A workplace bully might go into shared files and change or delete the work of their target. They might put their name on their target’s work to claim as their own. These tactics might seem funny in a comedy television show, but in many industries, this type of work adulteration is legally fraud. 

If changing someone’s work causes financial or compliance problems, for example, the bully is willfully creating non-compliance or financial fraud. If the industry involves a chain of custody, the bully may be committing fraud by altering records even the slightest bit.


  • Changing or reversing a target’s work when it affects a client’s account
  • Taking credit for a coworker’s work in a way that violates regulatory chain of custody
  • Falsifying records that will later be audited

Employer Negligence in Workplace Bullying

It is also important to remember than it’s not just the bullies that are liable when workplace bullying becomes discriminatory harassment, sexual harassment, an unsafe work environment, or willful fraud. Any employer who has looked the other way to allow this behavior, especially if they have been made aware of the bullying directly, is liable for negligence at best and may be considered fully responsible for the behavior.

A California employment lawyer can help you hold both the bullies and your employer legally and financially liable for breaking the law and the damage that was caused as a result.


  • The bullying target or a witness has raised the issue of bullying and been disregarded
  • Health and safety hazards have been pointed out and ignored
  • HR has refused to take action in “interpersonal conflicts” and will not investigate

Eldessouky Law Can Help You Stop Workplace Bullying

If you are being bullied in the workplace or you are the witness to workplace bullying, Eldessouky Law can help. Our team of skilled and trial-ready California employment attorneys can identify when workplace bullying has crossed a legal line. From there, we will make a plan of action to stop the abuse and hold all parties liable for either participating or allowing the bullying to continue. If necessary, we can help you sue emotional, professional, financial, and even medical damages as a result of the bullying behavior.

If you have questions about your rights as an employee in California or wish to discuss your case confidentially with one of our experienced employment attorneys, contact our office at 714-409-8991 or fill out one of our contact forms online.

We are available for video conference calls

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