While workplace regulations — even post-#MeToo and in employee-friendly states like California — do a lot to protect employees, there are no regulations against being a jerk.

It is frustrating, but there are steps we can take to safeguard our employees and our work environment. The first of which is understanding what behaviors are officially harassment and which are not. Here are a few ways to tell and some tips on what to do about it.


Bullying and recent awareness campaigns about it, are mostly directed at youth. StopBullying.gov defines it as "unwanted, aggressive behavior… that involves a real or perceived power imbalance." When viewed in this manner, it is clear that such actions are just as likely to take place among adults in the office as they are among kids at school.

However, under federal law, bullying is not considered unlawful unless it is discriminatory or hostile. In other words, an employee may clearly be engaged in bullying behavior, but unless that behavior is directed at someone specifically because they are a member of a protected class, it may not be unlawful.

That does not tie our hands. As leaders, we have the ability to hold our employees accountable for any behavior that does not promote a safe, productive workplace.

In addition to leading by example, leaders can address bullying behaviors quickly and in a manner that sends a message it is not tolerated. Further, the organization can adopt civility policies, like those noted in this Society for Human Resources Management article, to proactively create a more positive environment.

Hostile work environment

Speaking of environment, hostile work environment is a term that is also often misunderstood and misused. According to the Department of Labor, for a work environment to be considered unlawfully hostile, the behavior must be unwelcome and based on a protected class; it must also be "severe and pervasive enough … that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive."

Thus, an employee that consistently yells and acts like a jerk to his team all the time is not necessarily doing anything unlawful. In some cases, this may be the culture of the office.

However, if as a leader, this is not the environment we want to create, then in addition to the steps above, we can work with the manager to change, provide anti-harassment/anti-bullying training to all employees, and publicly reinforce behaviors that support the desired culture.


Hostile work environment is one type of harassment. The other type of harassment regulated by federal law is quid pro quo harassment. In such cases, an employment decision is made based on the employee’s "acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors… [or] unwelcome conduct that is of a religious nature." (Department of Labor)

For example, being a jerk by yelling and relentlessly asking an employee to do something they do not want to do and withholding a bonus or promotion until they do it may not be harassment. Instead, again, we return to the idea of reinforcing positive behaviors and if possible, consistently addressing negative ones.

Thus, while the federal government provides a minimum guideline, we are free to adopt and enforce policies that support exactly the environment we want to create and efficiently address behaviors that do not support it. The bottom line is, while the federal law may not keep our work environments free of jerks, as leaders, we have the power to do it ourselves.