Compliance Blog

Understanding the Differences Between Workplace Bullying and Harassment

October 12, 2021 | Blaine Oelschlegel

Employees can find themselves the target of bullying or harassment by a colleague or supervisor in any workplace setting. While the abusive actions of a bully or harasser can often look similar, there are important differences. 

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as unwelcome and repeated behavior intent on harming someone who feels powerless to respond. Bullying behavior can include teasing, insults, threats, withholding work-related information, purposely leaving someone out of a meeting, sabotaging projects, blocking promotions, publicly reprimanding someone and requesting unnecessary work. 

According to the WBI, 20% of workplace bullying incidents cross the line and become harassment – an illegal form of discrimination based on protected characteristics, including race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, color, age, disability, pregnancy and generic information. Harassing behaviors interfere with an individual’s job performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment and can include unsolicited written and verbal comments, gestures, displaying offensive images, unwelcome physical contact or assault.

Abusive actions by bullies and harassers can lead to increased employee absenteeism and turnover, lower morale, reduced productivity and litigation. In addition to having a no-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment, organizations that provide employee and manager training on how to recognize, report and prevent such misconduct foster a positive work culture based on inclusion and respect.

Differences between workplace bullying and harassment
Understanding the ways bullying and harassment differ is an important step in deciding what actions to take to stop it. 

  • Harassment is unlawful, bullying is not
    No federal laws exist that make bullying of a generic nature illegal. California is the only state to require employers to provide anti-bullying training, however, it is in every organization’s best interest to address bullying and prevent it from undermining team building, psychological safety and productivity. If bullying escalates to the level of illegal harassment under federal or state laws protecting race, sex, religion and other characteristics, it is incumbent upon an organization to respond promptly and formally to claims to avoid costly lawsuits.
  • Victims often recognize harassing behavior before bullying
    A target of harassment usually knows immediately that they are being harassed because of the intrusive nature of a perpetrator’s actions, such as physical contact, invading one’s space and offensive and aggressive speech. Conversely, targets of bullying may not recognize a pattern of psychological abuse by a supervisor or coworker for weeks or months and instead attribute their criticism or demeaning comments to someone “having a bad day.”
  • Bullying must be repetitive, harassment only needs to occur once
    Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment in the workplace, while harassment can be a single action, such as unwanted physical conduct. The repetitive actions of bullies can have significant and serious effects on the physical and mental well-being of victims over time.

Victims of bullying or harassment should contact human resources when they have either tried unsuccessfully to address the situation with their supervisor or feel unable to do so due to fears of retaliation. It’s important to have clear documentation of the incidents, including dates, times, and places.

Traliant Insight
Bullying and harassing behaviors aren’t conducive to creating a positive or productive workplace, so organizations have a vested interest in rooting it out. Awareness training to ensure employees and managers know how to identify, address and report different types of misconduct without a fear of reprisal is essential to creating a healthy work culture.

Sign up for a free trial of our Preventing Bullying in the Workplace and Preventing Discrimination and Harassment training: