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Comparing Workplace Harassment to Workplace Bullying

Obligations of Targeted Parties and Employers

Workplace bullying and workplace harassment have many similarities but important differences exist. Both tend to threaten workplace harmony and productivity, and they can cause real damage to the bullied/harassed person. If you think you might be the target of a bully or harasser at work, this blog will help you to understand the differences and options available to you to seek redress.

Workplace Harassment

In the U.S., harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as:

Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

Harassment becomes unlawful where: (1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or (2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Workplace Bullying

In the U.S., workplace bullying is not specifically defined by the law or public policy, although many states have adopted laws to protect the bullied person. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, since 2003, 25 states have introduced workplace bullying legislation that would allow workers to sue for harassment without requiring a showing of discrimination.

Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done.

Differences between Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace

Employment Law

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is prohibited by law whereas U.S. employment law does not currently address bullying.

Member of a Protected Group

Harassment relates to a person’s status as a member of protected group as described above. Bullying can be directed at anyone and does not have to be related to race, color, religion, etc.

Target of Bullying

Harassment does not have to be directed at an individual. Prohibited conduct that is directed at no one in particular can still be considered harassment. Bullying is always characterized by individual(s) who willfully targets another person or persons.

Relationship between Parties

Harassment can take place whether or not there is a relationship between the harasser and the victim while bullying cannot really occur in the absence of at least some sort of relationship between bully and target.

Overlapping Nature of Harassment and Bullying

A harasser is not always a bully, but they might be if they repeatedly target the same person(s) with the intent to harm or intimidate. Workplace bullying can be considered harassment if the conduct is directed at the target because of his/her membership in a protected group.

Both harassment and bullying can be perpetrated openly or in secret, in person, or in any medium (including email, text messaging, and through the use of social media), with or without the knowledge of co-workers.

Both harassment and bullying can be verbal or physical. Most workplace bullying cases involve verbal abuse. If the bullying conduct becomes physical, legal authorities should be notified.

Employer Responsibilities

Employers can be potentially liable for discrimination that stems from harassment. U.S. law currently does not specify legal liability for employers when workplace bullying has occurred. Bullying targets have no legal options unless they can show that either harassment or physical violence took place.

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who claim harassment, and can be held liable if they do. U.S. law currently does not protect employees who report bullying.

Employers need to sit up and take notice. If they want to have a healthy, committed work force they need to actively promote workplace harmony.

Employers need to enforce strict rules prohibiting bullying at work, just as they do for sexual harassment, while governments need to pass solid legislation providing protection for targets of workplace bullying.

The real damage is that, without effective workplace bullying policies and proper workplace bullying legislation, the problem of workplace bullying becomes a company culture issue, a societal issue, and a moral issue. Stopping workplace bullying is everyone's responsibility.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 5, 2013

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