I have traveled around the world speaking on the topic of workplace bullying, and I often get the question: What is the difference between workplace bullying, harassment and violence? Well, here is the answer.
Workplace bullying is unwanted, recurring aggressiveness that causes psychological and physical harm, and creates a psychological power imbalance between the bully and targets. In other words, there are three concepts central to defining workplace bullying:
Bullying behaviors can be divided into three clear categories: aggressive communication, humiliation, and manipulation of work.
Discrimination occurs when an employee or manager treats one group of people less fairly than other groups of people because of a protected class, including race, religion, sex or gender, nationality, age, disability, genetics, or any other defining characteristic. Examples include consistently giving bonuses to males because they are male or to females because they are female, and not because of individual performance; not letting a person take the day off for a religious holiday; or taking responsibilities away from someone because she is pregnant.
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is intimidating, hostile or abusive; interferes with an employee’s ability to work; or is a condition of continued employment. Examples include using racially derogatory words, telling inappropriate jokes, making offensive remarks about skin color or age, hanging offensive posters, expressing negative stereotypes and more.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
The defining difference is that workplace bullying is legal in most of the U.S., and discrimination and harassment are illegal. Harassment is about protected characteristics, and workplace bullying is not.
If people are bullied because of their race, religion, gender, sex, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, disability, perceived disability, nationality, or a whole host of other reasons, then that behavior is against the law because it is harassment, and the targets of that behavior have legal recourse.
If a person is an equal-opportunity offender, and bullies a variety of people from a variety of categories, then it is not considered harassment and it is therefore legal.
Despite their legal differences, bullying and harassment often include relatively similar behaviors – and both are about power.
In academics the issue of bullies’ intention is widely debated. Some fervently believe that bullying is intentional while others fervently believe bullying is unintentional.
Currently there are four states that have a law about workplace bullying (the laws all refer to it as abusive conduct, but it is the same thing). Two of the laws require intention (Utah and California), one doesn’t mention it at all (Tennessee), and the fourth (Nevada) indicates bullying is illegal whether it “is intended to cause or actually causes harm.”
In the end, if the behavior is causing one or more people to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, stressed out, and more, then it should be stopped.
As EBI points out in its latest whitepaper about workplace violence, the definition of workplace violence is broad and can be any act of aggression, physical assault, or threatening behavior.
There are three levels of workplace violence. While Level 3 violence is what gets the media’s attention, Level 1 and 2 happen in workplaces every day.
In reviewing this list one can see that bullying and violence can easily overlap, however some differences do exist. Workplace violence is overt and physical, while bullying is insidious and manipulative. Perpetrators of workplace violence throw things, become visibly angry and make clear threats of violence. Bullies use workflow and communication to bully, such as bottlenecking information, overworking the target, giving impossible deadlines, and using performance evaluations to document alleged poor performance.
In rare cases bullying does indeed turn into violence because the target “goes postal” and gains retribution through violence against the bully. Most often, however, lost deep in their feelings of shame, helplessness and depression they commit suicide.
Sometimes the bully’s anger and frustration at the target get the best of him and he lashes out. I was an expert on a court case against a large retailer, for example, where the bully punched the target. The employer was sued because the target called the retailer’s risk management team when he could see the bully escalating, and risk management told the target to finish out his shift and then they would transfer him. Unfortunately during that shift the bully’s behavior escalated to violence.
In the end, negative behavior at work is on a spectrum, with incivility at one end, bullying somewhere in the middle, and violence at the other end.
Catherine M. Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Chevron, the American Red Cross, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on national affiliates of FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and NPR. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released her second book, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.