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What is the difference between bullying and harassment at work?

On Behalf of | Feb 23, 2024 | Employment Law

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Oftentimes, bullying involves younger people attending educational institutions. One student ends up tormented by some of their peers, leading to reduced academic performance and possibly issues with them skipping school. However, bullying can also occur in the workplace. One coworker may end up targeted by other employees and may have a hard time fitting in with their teammates. Occasionally, bullying can reach a point where it actually creates a hostile work environment and becomes a form of harassment.

Many workers understandably have a hard time understanding the difference between workplace bullying and actionable harassment. What differentiates standard workplace bullying from harassment that might lead to a lawsuit?

Harassment is more serious than bullying

Bullying is often subtle and minor. While it can have negative effects on someone’s work performance and their mental health, it may not actually violate their rights. Continual harassment in the workplace creates a hostile work environment.

Someone enduring harassment cannot safely and effectively do their job because the work environment is consistently hostile or inappropriate. In some cases, harassment could make a worker feel unsafe because they cannot get the support they need from their co-workers or they fear violence from certain people.

The motivation behind the negative interactions also separates bullying from harassment. Bullying can occur due to interpersonal conflicts and many different minor issues. Actionable harassment typically relates to someone’s protected characteristics. The law prohibits the mistreatment of workers based on their age sex, religion, medical disability and race, along with several other key characteristics.

Actionable workplace harassment, which is a type of discrimination, usually involves coworkers targeting someone because of a protected characteristic. The conduct must be severe and consistent to create a hostile work environment.

The average person may have a hard time understanding the difference between harassment and bullying, which is understandable, as legal nuance is rarely taught in school. As such, it is often necessary to discuss one’s situation with a lawyer to evaluate whether someone is in a position to take legal action. An attorney can help someone identify harassment and can also help someone explore their options for resolving the hostile work environment that they’re currently enduring.