The difference between workplace bullying and harassment

Business, Crime

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has shed light on the frequency of sexual harassment in Hollywood, and the #MeToo campaign that followed it has made it clear that countless women have experienced sexual harassment in just about every line of work. Together, they are forcing people around the country to consider the nature of sexual behavior in the workplace, including incidents of bullying and harassment. While bullying and harassment may share similarities, there is a distinction, particularly in the workplace.

Understanding bullying

We often think of bullying as a problem that affects young people during their school years, but it can happen to anyone, anywhere. Bullying is a targeted campaign meant to destroy a person’s interpersonal relationships. A bully starts by singling someone out and then recruiting others to join in, creating a sense of isolation in the targeted individual.

The Workplace Bullying Institute emphasizes that the mistreatment is humiliating, intimidating, and threatening – not to mention harmful to the targeted person’s health. In the workplace, bullying can include sabotage of work as well as verbal abuse.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are no laws dealing with workplace bullying. As a target, if your health is impacted and your employer does not step in, your only options might be to file for worker’s comp, take unpaid family leave, or find another job.

Workplace harassment versus workplace bullying

Harassment and bullying certainly have a lot in common, but there is one big legal difference: workplace harassment is illegal, and there are state and federal laws that offer protections to workers who experience it. To prove workplace harassment, you must show that you’re being targeted as a member of a protected class and that the behavior creates a hostile work environment. Under federal employment statutes, the protected classes are race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. State laws may include other groups, such as sexual identity.

If you experience workplace harassment, make sure you document everything and immediately  talk to your HR department to begin a discrimination complaint. Next, you will escalate it to filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which will authorize you to file a lawsuit if you wish to proceed.

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that only 20 percent of workplace bullying cases meet the legal definition of harassment. That means that in 80 percent of workplace bullying cases the victim has no legal recourse. In those circumstances, your company’s human resources department will be your primary option to address the problem and frequently offer anonymous ways to report these issues in order protect the identity of everyone involved.