Is There a Difference Between Workplace Harassment and Bullying?

Stressed office worker

Your work environment should be a professional place where you feel safe and enabled to perform to the best of your potential. When you experience any form of harassment or bullying in the workplace, it creates hostility. Both offences should be taken seriously. But is there a difference?

In this article, we aim to help you identify and understand the difference between harassment and bullying in the workplace.

What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is any unwanted behaviour that is aimed at offending, intimidating or humiliating you and creates a hostile work environment. Harassment is targeted at people based on personal characteristics that could include ethnicity, gender or race.

What is bullying in the workplace?

Workplace bullying is considered to be repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an individual or group of workers. Bullying creates a risk to the health and safety of workers, including their mental and physical health.

A few examples of workplace bullying include:

  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Teasing individuals
  • Playing practical jokes
  • Making unreasonable work demands

While there are some similarities between harassment and bullying, as soon as comments and actions as directed towards your gender, sexual orientation, race, disability or age, it is then considered harassment.

What’s not considered workplace bullying?

While there are definitely some behaviours that can make you threatened, intimidated, or humiliated, not all actions are against the law. While some may feel the demands from managerial positions could be a form of bullying when management actions are done in a reasonable manner, it’s not defined as workplace bullying.

Here are a few reasonable management actions that are not considered workplace bullying:

  • Employers deciding not to promote you
  • Employers providing feedback about your performance
  • Employers putting you on a performance management plan due to your underperforming at your job
  • Employers reasonable decision to demote, dismiss, discipline, counsel, transfer, or retrench you in accordance with your employment contract and any modern award or enterprise agreement that applies to your employment);
  • The occasional one-off incidents that occur in the workplace, if someone loses their temper or shouts or swears at you (as long as it is not directed at race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or disability)

Is bullying and harassment in the workplace against the law?

Yes. According to anti-discrimination law, treating people less favourably based on particular protected attributes such as a person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, or age is unlawful. Workplace anti-discrimination law is set out in federal and state statutes, and there are specific legal provisions for disability harassment, sexual harassment, and racial hatred.

Employers are legally required to provide a safe workplace for all employees, as workplace harassment and bullying harm the health, safety and welfare of employees.

Can you do anything about workplace bullying and harassment?

All people have the right to work in an environment where they feel safe and are free from harassment, bullying and discrimination. Should you experience anything of this nature at work, there are internal and external options available to help you. However, your options will depend on where you live and work and the type of behaviour you experience.

Can Human Resources help prevent workplace bullying?

Prevention is key to stopping bullying and harassment in the workplace, and Human Resources (HR) plays a major role in keeping the peace. When companies turn a blind eye to issues such as bullying, it can escalate.

HR is responsible for creating corporate guidelines about bullying and making them accessible to all employees, managers and employers. However, it’s not up to HR to be for or against the accused – in fact, they should remain neutral while trying to resolve the underlying issues.

While bullying is not deemed an immediate threat to employees and requires repeated behaviour in order for it to be recognised, it’s one step from being discrimination or harassment.

Completing a post-graduate course in human resources will give you the tools to set appropriate policies in place to best deal with bullying in the workplace and aid in creating a safer workspace for all employees.

Final Thoughts

There is a fine line between bullying and harassment in the workplace, and in many cases, bullying often results in harassment. Employees have the right to work in an environment where they feel safe enough to thrive, and employers have the responsibility to provide such a space for their employees. With the help of an HR team and experts, necessary policies can be put into place to create an environment that is conducive to work for everyone involved.

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