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Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment: What You Need To Know

Workplace bullying and workplace harassment are ugly members of the same family. They thrive in the workplace, wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent employees.

While workplace harassment and workplace bullying are closely related, they have some striking differences. For those of you who have been a target of workplace bullying – you need to know the real damage.

Here are some differences:

  • Workplace harassment has a strong intrusive component including physical contact such as invading physical space, including personal possessions and damage to possessions.
  • Workplace bullying is almost always psychological.
  • Workplace harassment is usually linked to protected status issues such as sex, race, prejudice or discrimination; and these are against federal law.
  • Workplace bullying is frequently linked to a staged attack on competent and popular individuals.
  • Everyone can recognize workplace harassment because of its overt nature.
  • Few can see workplace bullying because it is usually perpetrated behind closed doors.
  • A target of workplace harassment knows he or she is being harassed immediately.
  • A target of workplace bullying may not realize it for weeks or months, until great damage is done.
  • Workplace harassment is usually accompanied by offensive aggressive vocabulary.
  • Workplace bullying shows its face through trivial untrue criticisms of under-performance.

Sandy Hershcovis of University of Manitoba and Julian Barling of Queens University studied the relationship between one form of harassment – namely (sexual) harassment and workplace bullying. They found that those bullied were more stressed, angry and anxious, and were less committed and more likely to quit their jobs, than were victims of (sexual) harassment. Targets of workplace bullying also had a lower over-all sense of well-being.

Workplace Bullying: is deliberate, disrespectful and repeated behavior toward a target for the bully’s gain.

Harassment: is defined as “unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

There are reasons why workplace bullying is more injurious than (sexual) harassment:

  1. (Sexual) harassment is illegal. Workplace bullying is not. Targets of workplace bullying and (sexual) harassment both sustain significant psychological injury. Victims of (sexual) harassment however can appeal to the powers that be for justice; while targets of workplace bullying cannot, unless company policies are implemented. Without enforced company policies, those being bullied experience a greater sense of powerlessness.
  2. Bullies can be very subtle in their aggression. Thus this noxious behavior is harder to detect. The survival instinct of the target causes him or her to go into denial as the crazy-making behavior continues. Significant damage can be done to the target before they are even aware of what is happening to them. While (sexual) harassment can also be subtle, it is easier to detect. The same can be said for physical and racial harassment. Becoming aware is the first step to curbing powerlessness.

Dr. Heinz Lymann, a Swedish researcher, worked with victims of workplace mobbing. He found that the chances of healing were reduced if the perpetrator went unpunished, and the target was not properly supported. He further discovered that the chances of healing were reduced if the target felt that his or her safety was in question.

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, while governments need to pass solid legislation providing protection for targets.

Many places are facing a labor crunch and employers are competing for the best talent. Eventually, good employees will not tolerate workplace bullying of any form. Targets of workplace bullying, just as victims of sexual harassment, deserve the protection of their employers and their governments. Nothing less will suffice.

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.


Does your company have a policy for workplace bullying? How effective or ineffective is it? What should a workplace bullying policy include? Feel free to contact us anytime to set up a free consultation.

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10 responses to “Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment: What You Need To Know”

  1. carole says:

    i have experienced bullying & mobbing in all women’s organizations. in my opinion, unions need to really step up to the plate here. often the bullying occurs because someone has more senority as if that matters with professionals. the work environment becomes very toxic when staff focus on senority as opposed to job knowledge, qualifications and experience. unionized environments still have not taken an active stand against bullying & mobbing at the workplace. managers and co-workers who turn a blind eye, do not name what is happening, become passive bystanders or participate are often rewarded by continual employment. it’s hard to believe that these women continue to work in the helping profession no less!

  2. admin says:

    Currently we do not have public seminars on workplace bullying. We will be coming out with our audio version of Bully Free at Work as well as a DVD series.

  3. occaw says:

    What classes and where can be taken? If there are classes, would there be any in San Diego or Seattle?
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  4. Delores says:

    My bully in the workplace is the boss; the HR AVP. A very distructive situation. I have not read anything on this specific topic.

  5. Cheryl Ann Stahel says:

    Sometimes I wonder if using the title ‘Bullying and Harassment’ doesn’t actually hinder people from understanding the seriousness of this issue in a work environment. ‘Harassment’ may (only) bring to mind law suits, sexual misconduct, domestic violence/stalking, the concerns listed in our Bill of Human Rights etc. Bullying may still bring to mind immature, childish behaviors that while awareness is increasing on its long term effects it is still looked at with the attitude of ‘get over it and grow up’.
    Being a publicly elected person with no closure insight from being bullied and harassed by a fellow elected person I have discovered the Tort of Misfeasance in Public Office. This tort addresses actions that while normally considered legal take on a different meaning when done in a deliberate or harmful way. These actions may then become chargeable offences.
    I’m just wondering if by removing the labels that bring to mind many other issues and perceptions – except perhaps the ones we are experiencing – may help to bring workplace bullying and harassment to a clearer ground where it can be addressed without the ‘baggage of other perceptions’ attached. Just a thought.

  6. Paul Beattie says:

    Hi, I have experienced both harrassment and bullying so much so that it has made me physically ill. My doctor took me out of my job because of it! The Union I was a member of keeled over because of the bullys’ “friends” who are involved in what some would call a gangster type organisation that permeates most levels of society in Belfast, Northern Ireland – I have physical proof of illegal activity. I have lost my livelihood, my family and my friends because of a criminal and their behaviour. I documented the last 16 months of the behaviour all of which was brushed aside by the employer who did not want to know. They (my former employer) even went as far to fabricate excuses which I caught them out on. They lied and were caught!! I did not want money I just wanted to be vindicated and see some restoration of normality in my life. I loved my job in the computer industry – I am self taught and learn quickly and go beyond duty to get things done. If I can’t fix it you need to buy new parts!

    I hagve handed over physical evidence of piracy/criminality to FACT but they don’t want to know either – what chance with the police in this country, who are, by their very nature as secterian as the people who bullied me out of my job?

    There is only justice for the ruling socio-religious groups and bullies in this place belonging to the chosen elect can do whatever they like without recrimination! What chance have my children have with monsters like them?? None whatsoever. I wish I had have died when I tried to kill myself! I have no future and these animals will always rule!

  7. Sheri says:

    This article really hit home with me. I worked for a local bank and recently quit my job because of a manager that was a bully. He had no respect for me and my abilities. It really does afect for self esteem and your self worth. Unfortunatly, this is a good ole boy employer and even though he is being investigated nothing will happen.

  8. Tina says:

    How this article reasonated with me as I read through it. There certainly is a challenge in identifying bullying vs. harrassment.

    thank you for pointing out the differences. In my opinion the psychology of it all is so damaging to a pseron’s self esteem and self worth as an employee. You start to second guess yourself and feel like no matter what you do it is not right.

    The struggle I have is when the bully is in upper management…..I feel that there is no place to go.

    I am a work in progress.

  9. Nick Perrin says:

    Valerie, you again have upleveled our understanding of negative workplace behavor that is repeated,disrespectful, deliberate, hurtful; And no matter how you slice or dice it,be it bullying or harassment – it has to be ‘nipped in thd bud’!!

Valerie Cade, CSP is a Workplace Bullying Expert, Speaker and Author of "Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now!" which has been distributed in over 100 countries worldwide. For presentations and consulting on workplace bullying prevention and respectful workplace implementation, go to

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