Workplace Bullying and Harassment: What's the Difference?

Published: January 25, 2013 Author: Clearpoint Tags: Manager's Corner, Working and Workplaces

The problem of workplace bullying is a fairly hot topic in the world of work these days. Read our post, "Grown Up Mean Girls: Bullies in the Workplace," for a couple of true stories we collected from friends and colleagues.

In this follow up, I try to explain the difference between workplace bullying and harassment. Both types of misconduct cause damage to your organization but in potentially different ways. We hope this helps clarify the differences and the associated risks to your organization.

Our third post in this series suggests some strategies for managers who want to keep bullying out of their work environment.

Disclaimer: Clearpoint cares deeply about safe and healthy workplaces, but we are not employment lawyers. Nothing you read here should be considered legal advice. Please consult your own legal experts when crafting policies or deciding how to deal with matters of harassment and bullying on the job.


In the United States, 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. In the United States, workplace bullying is not specifically defined by the law or public policy.  This definition comes from The Healthy Workplace Campaign, an organization that advocates for better legal protections for bullied workers. 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

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is prohibited by law. U.S. employment law does not currently address bullying.
Harassment relates to person's status as a member of protected group because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Bullying can be directed at anyone and does not have to be related to race, color, religion, etc.
Harassment doesn't 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.
Can take place whether or not there is any relationship between the harasser and the victim. Can't really occur in the absence of at least some sort of relationship between bully and target.
When bullying is occurring, the bully relentlessly targets the victim and the victim is unable to respond with equal force.
By definition, bullying ultimately causes targets to develop deep seated fears and/or adverse health effects that affect their ability to function normally. Experts consider bullying to be similar in nature to domestic abuse.

How Harassment and Bullying Can Overlap

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 it 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, messaging, and social networks), 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 can get involved.

Liability Risks for Employers

Employers can potentially be held liable for discrimination that stems from harassment. Situations in which employers are or are not liable are matters of law. (Consult attorney for specific legal advice.) 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.

Other Risks for Employers

Left unaddressed, both harassment and bullying in the workplace can cost your company dearly in the form of lowered productivity as employee attention shifts from meaningful performance to office power struggles. Whether or not there is a lawsuit, bad actors can cause tension and fear among employees (even those not being targeted), staff turnover and associated costs of hiring and training, stress-related health problems among employees, and absenteeism.

For a few tips about preventing workplace bullying, see our third post in this series.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments (0)

Hot Jobs of the Week

Here are just a few of the “hot jobs” Clearpoint is working on this week. Please apply for anything that is a fit for your skills and experience, and as always please feel free to share with your networks.