A Closer Look: Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment

About 6 min

A Closer Look: Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment

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. 

Defining Workplace Bullying 

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 must be repeated. Bullying does not refer to incivility or someone having a bad day. In fact, in an effort to quantify bullying so they can study it, academic research indicates bullying happens at least once per week for a period of six months, and on average, lasts for a period of two to five years. 
  • Bullying causes psychological and physical harm to targets and witnesses. People who self-identify as targets experience anxiety, depression, stress and other issues, which ultimately results in physical problems. The stress of being beaten down at work every day causes sleepless nights, headaches, heartaches, stomach aches, heart disease, and more. In fact plenty of research has found being bullied can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, thoughts of suicide, and suicide itself. 
  • Bullying is about psychological power. An initial bullying incident occurs, and for whatever reason the target doesn’t speak out. Over time, and as long as the target doesn’t speak up, the bully will continue to push on the target more frequently and more aggressively until there is an understanding that the bully has power and the target does not. The abuse ultimately leaves the target feeling helpless. 

workplaceviolence1Bullying 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 Differences and Similarities between Harassment & Bullying 

workplaceviolence2The 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. 

What about intention?

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. 

The Differences and Similarities Between Bullying & Violence 

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. 

  • Level 1 – Verbal Aggression: Constant refusal to cooperate, spreading rumors to harm others, being aggressively argumentative, or belligerent  behavior towards others 
  • Level 2 – Unreasonable Behavior: Refusal to obey company policies and procedures, sabotaging equipment and/or stealing property for revenge, or destruction of property 
  • Level 3 – Physical Acts: making suicidal threats, physical fights, or commission of a murder, rape or arson 

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. 

Violence in the Workplace whitepaper

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