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Is nastiness illegal at work?

On Behalf of | Oct 8, 2023 | Employment Law

Not everyone acts nicely toward everyone else all the time. This is true everywhere, from the home to the street and the school playground to the workplace.

Despite philosophical self-help books telling you not to take insults personally because someone’s unpleasant actions and words are more a reflection on them than you, it can be tough to endure. Do you have legal grounds to stop someone who is being mean to you at work?

It depends

Someone being nasty is not illegal per se. For example, a group of colleagues telling you that your skirt looks like something their great-grandmother would have worn or your boss calling you incompetent is not illegal.

Things could take an illegal turn if they use a protected characteristic to attack you

Employment laws give you the right to a workplace free from discrimination. So, if, for example, the clothing they are attacking is something you wear because of your faith or culture. Or if they don’t just call you an incompetent idiot but a Black or Jewish incompetent idiot, they would be in breach of employment laws.

What are the protected characteristics?

The following are protected characteristics in California:

  • Race, color
  • Ancestry, national origin
  • Religion, creed
  • Age (40 and over)
  • Disability, mental and physical
  • Sex, gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding or related medical conditions)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Medical condition
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Military or veteran status

The perpetrator might not even need to mention your characteristics, provided you can show that that is why they singled you out for this treatment. 

If you feel a protected characteristic may come into the poor treatment you received, consider learning more about your legal options.


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