Bullying vs. Harassment – Know the Differences

Why your company needs an anti-bullying policy


Bullying in the workplace is a common occurrence that’s often ignored or overlooked by management. Sometimes it may be ignored because, unlike sexual harassment, there’s usually no legal requirement that an organization have an anti-bullying policy. It also may be overlooked because leaders take a hands-off approach, believing employees should work out their own issues. It may sometimes be ignored because more than 70 percent of bullies in the workplace are the bosses, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. 

Bullying vs. harassment
The opportunity for bullying at all levels is enhanced by the anonymity of social media, and workplace bullying can be fueled by the political or economic environment. However, in the workplace it is usually different from what you may remember as schoolyard bullying. The schoolyard bully is often the misfit or the loner, while the workplace bully may be a highly skilled, ambitious employee who seeks to harm or intimidate coworkers who might share his credit.

Bullying is related to other forms of harassment, and the types of harassment prohibited by law can be seen as a form of bullying. But there are differences. Bullying includes any words or actions that make an employee feel uncomfortable, threatened, or intimidated. Employers should ensure that employees feel safe at work and that minor conflicts don’t escalate to an uncontrollable level. Bullying leads to low morale, poor performance, and high turnover. But it’s also important to note that a large proportion of workplace violence is carried out by employees who were bullied or hazed, which creates an antibullying culture.

Creating a policy and culture
An antibullying policy should be similar to other workplace harassment policies. It should include definitions, explanations, reporting procedures, consequences for violations, and antiretaliation provisions.

The policy should clearly define bullying and specifically state that the company will not tolerate it. Workplace bullying can be defined as (1) abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; (2) actions that interfere with others’ work (e.g., sabotage) or prevent work from getting done; or (3) verbal abuse. You should cite numerous examples of the type of behavior that can constitute bullying, including:

  • Threatening or intentionally intimidating someone, such as violence and blackmail;
  • Shouting or raising your voice in public or in private;
  • Not allowing someone to speak or express himself (e.g., ignoring or interrupting);
  • Hurling personal insults, using obscene gestures and using offensive nicknames; and
  • Publicly humiliating someone in any way (e.g., spreading rumors or hazing).

You must enforce your policy fairly and consistently to build an antibullying culture. Steps that will build such a culture include:

  1. Conducting a thorough investigation when bullying is reported.Investigate bullying claims the same way you would investigate claims of sexual harassment. Request written statements from the victim, accused bully, and any witnesses. Document the investigation and your findings so you can support any action you take.
  2. Encouraging immediate reporting, and ensuring retaliation doesn’t occur. The complaint process should be similar to your other harassment complaint procedures. Employees should know to whom they can report bullying, and the process should facilitate speaking up as soon as possible after an incident, without fear of retaliation from the company.
  3. Providing training for managers on bullying behavior and how to enforce the policy. Each incident will have a different precipitating cause and will occur under various circumstances. Managers should be taught to provide a safe workplace where standards promoting a positive attitude, respect, and workplace decorum are enforced.

Bottom line
Developing an anti-bullying strategy, both to reduce the chance of violence and to build a positive culture, is the right thing to do. It will create an environment that will generate the best work product from your employees and the best business results.

Joe Godwin is a management consultant with F&H Solutions Group. He may be contacted at godwin@fhsolutionsgroup.com.

Need to learn more? Bullying is just one sign of a breakdown in company culture. There’s also sexual harassment, racial discrimination. Hostile work environment.When the workplace culture perpetuates these types of unlawful activities under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or other laws, employers are at extreme risk of costly lawsuits—not to mention irreparable damage to the company’s reputation and brand, employee morale, and other negative consequences.

Employment law attorney Mark Schickman will present Culture Club:  The Link Between Workplace Culture and Workplace Harassment Claims” at the 22nd Advanced Employment Issues Symposium in Las Vegas on November 17. This session will examine recent cases illustrating the ways in which aggressive business practices may foster a culture that breeds harassment claims, how to evaluate whether company leaders’ messages and tone aligns with your efforts to maintain a harassment-free culture, and more. For more information on AEIS, click here.


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