Harassment vs Bullying In the Workplace – What’s the Difference?

The terms bullying and harassment in the workplace are often used interchangeably. Both cause psychological harm to the victims and make the workplace unpleasant, but they aren’t the stop-bully-logosame thing.

Harassment usually has a physical component and is more intrusive and obvious. Victims and witnesses tend to have an immediate reaction that something is wrong. It is physical contact, invading someone’s physical space or possessions or damaging possessions. It can also include any offensive and aggressive speech that accompanies those acts. In the workplace, harassment can be perpetrated by managers, subordinates, or co-workers.

Bullying is more psychological and socially degrades the victim for enjoyment.  It is more subtle, and victims often don’t realize until later that they are being bullied. Bullying is any action or behavior that is repeated, deliberate and intended to harm the victim. Bullies often use their position of authority to keep victims intimidated. Because of this, workplace bullying often involves a manager as perpetrator and their subordinate as victim. Some examples are the victim may be bullied into performing humiliating tasks, unwillingly taking unpopular shifts or assignments, or being stationed at the most undesirable location. It also includes deliberate sabotage.

The most important difference between bullying v. harassment in the workplace is that harassment is illegal, while bullying isn’t. Harassment is the term used when the actions actually violate someone else’s civil rights. Victims are protected under harassment laws if they are being singled out because of any of the following:

  • race
  • sex
  • age
  • religion
  • national origin
  • color
  • disability
  • pregnancy
  • genetic information

Additionally, a victim is also protected if they are being retaliated against for:

  • having objected to illegal activity
  • taking family or medical leave
  • filing a worker’s compensation claim.

Most states have their own laws that may add additional categories to protected status. Anything that doesn’t fall into these categories, while unpleasant and unproductive, is legal. Most companies realize harassment and bullying are unreasonable, and should take a formal, written, specific complaint seriously, especially if it includes a statement of protected status. If a complaint qualifies as harassment, companies are held liable if they allow it to continue.

According to Healthy Workplace Bill.org, which keeps track of this type of legislation, at this time, no states have actually passed workplace anti-bullying laws, although so far, 25 have tried. The anti-bullying legislation that is being passed almost exclusively applies to schools. So someone that is a victim of bullying at work has no recourse unless their company has a policy on bullying and harassment. If the victim is included in one of the above mentioned protections, the bullying crosses over into harassment.

Small businesses with less than 15 employees are generally exempt from federal harassment laws, but states have their own laws that often do not provide exemptions for small businesses. Employers are ultimately responsible for maintaining a safe workplace.  The Supreme Court has ruled that victims of harassment have to report it if their company has a policy, otherwise they can lose their right to sue. Entrepreneur.com suggests that the best way for a small business to protect itself is to know their federal and state laws, educate their employees, and adopt policies and procedures. See Americanbar.org for a sample of what you might want to include in anti-bullying policies. The US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) also has suggestions for anti- harassment policies.

When addressing bullying v. harassment in the workplace, it is important for everyone involved to follow procedures and address issues in a serious manner. Most issues can be resolved in this way without having to involve lawyers.


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