What is Abusive Conduct in the Workplace?

What Is Abusive Conduct?

Abusive conduct is any repeated conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile or offensive. Abusive conduct can take many forms. Under California law, abusive conduct in the workplace is illegal. Verbal Abusive conduct may include repeated cases of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks or insults. For example, Sammy calls Yoshi’s ideas “ridiculous” and his work “amateur.” Such mean remarks can be very hurtful for the victim. Verbal abuse may happen in front of colleagues, or the attacker may wait until they have the victim alone. Under US law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers must take affirmative action against offending employees. Title VII does not mandate disciplinary measures if the unlawful conduct can be corrected without disciplinary action. Physical Supervisors and managers must understand what to do if an employee claims that they are the victim of physical abuse or assault. If management fails to act in the event of abusive conduct, they not only expose the victim to further abuse but also expose themselves and our company to potential lawsuits. For example, Nia was employed as a receptionist and reported her supervisor for unwanted physical conduct and for sending lewd, sexually suggestive, and explicit text messages. Nia was forced to continue working with her supervisor and, a short time later, was sent her final paycheck. She successfully sued for sexual harassment and retaliation.

Protected Characteristic?
It’s important to distinguish between abusive conduct and unlawful harassment or discrimination. Any person can suffer abusive conduct regardless of whether or not they belong to a protected class. On the other hand, abusive conduct based on a protected characteristic – such as gender, age, or race – often constitutes harassment or discrimination in legal terms. For example, Tyler started a new job where he was targeted by a colleague. The colleague continuously tried to make his work look bad. Tyler documented these events and presented his case to management who eventually dismissed the attacker.

Dealing with Abusive Conduct
A new colleague, Diego, seems depressed and withdrawn. When you ask him how he is, he tells you he feels he’s been the victim of abusive conduct by his colleagues. Which of the following actions that Diego says he has been subjected to could be considered abusive conduct?
Select the two actions.

  •  Diego’s team lead, Alice, has made threats about him losing his job if he doesn’t hit project milestones. She’s made these threats in team meetings and never acts this way towards any other team members.
  •  Diego sits beside Alfonso. He’s heard that Alfonso has a bit of a temper and on a few occasions since Diego started, Alfonso has threatened him with physical violence over some very petty things, like using his favorite coffee mug.
  • After completing a delivery for one of his first projects, one of Diego’s colleagues, Eli, provided some feedback to Diego on ways in which he could improve his next deliverable. Eli provided the feedback in a friendly manner.

In situations that involve abusive conduct, employers must take affirmative action and in some cases, disciplinary measures, against offending employees. If abusive conduct is not addressed, it will have a negative impact on employee morale and can also leave the company open to claims of abusive conduct which could result in financial penalties and loss of reputation. If you witness abusive conduct, you have a responsibility to report it. You can find out who to report it to here.

What Should the Company Do?
Diego reports the abusive conduct to his manager. His manager asks you for advice on what the company should do. Select the two actions the company should take.

  •  Investigate Diego’s claims.
  •  Implement training to help educate all employees in creating a more respectful work environment.
  • Dismiss the attackers identified by Diego immediately.

Thanks for helping Diego
The company should act to ensure that all employees are aware of what constitutes abusive conduct and that this conduct will not be tolerated. They must also provide all managers and supervisors with training that includes a policy to define unacceptable conduct and a mechanism for disciplining employees who engage in abusive conduct. It is your responsibility to know what type of situations you need to escalate, and who you need to escalate to.

This is content from our Workplace Conduct Booklet.

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