The Difference Between Harassment and Workplace Bullying


Workplace bullying may seem like just another phrase for harassment. However, the two terms are not interchangeable when it comes to the law. Both are deplorable actions that should not be tolerated in the workplace. However, in most states, only behavior that qualifies as harassment has legal ramifications.

The Difference Between Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying includes actions or behavior that are humiliating and intimidating. These actions may also interfere with work. Examples of workplace bullying include verbal abuse or intentionally harming another employee’s reputation.

Harassment, as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is intimidating, hostile, or offensive behavior. However, this behavior also systematically targets a person based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sexual Orientation

While the distinction between the two may sound razor-thin, it makes a dramatic difference in a court of law. You have no legal standing when being picked on by a bully. You may have a legal case if you are consistently being harassed in the workplace.

Understanding Workplace Harassment

Let’s break down this distinction a little more. An individual may make a rude comment about a co-worker’s new hairstyle. That could be considered bullying. A supervisor who repeatedly makes offensive comments about an employee’s hairstyle using racially inappropriate language could be in trouble.

The U.S Department of Labor highlights the fact that there are two basic types of illegal harassment behavior.

The first is creating a hostile work environment through intimidation, or hostile or offensive language or actions targeting a protected class. This could be telling sexist or racist jokes, unwanted touching, or making sexually suggestive comments.

The other is quid pro quo harassment or “this for that.” This type of harassment generally involves requests for sexual favors in exchange for something. For example, a supervisor could suggest engaging in a sexual encounter in exchange for a raise.

Harassment and Retaliation

Even when workplace conduct rises to the level of harassment, many employees are hesitant to speak up about the abuse. This is especially true if their harasser is a manager or supervisor. They may fear losing their job, making the harassment worse, or losing the respect or support of their co-workers.

U.S. anti-discrimination laws are meant to protect workers. These laws prohibit retaliation against a worker if they file a discrimination complaint or participate in a harassment investigation.

How to Stop Employment Harassment and Bullying

Unfortunately, there is no legal recourse for dealing with a workplace bully. However, there are valuable resources that can help you learn how to manage the difficult situation you are in.

If you find yourself the victim of workplace harassment, you do have legal options available to you. Making the decision to pursue legal action is difficult and can be overwhelming and intimidating. Going down this road means you need a supportive and experienced attorney that can help you navigate the legal process.

If you believe you are the target of workplace harassment, contact The Law Firm of Morgan Rooks, P.C. at (856) 746-6332. An experienced attorney can review your situation and discuss your legal options.

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