Bullying … Harassment … Violence: Key Workplace Differences Explained

By Catherine M. Mattice, MA, SPHR

I have traveled around the world speaking about the topic of workplace bullying, and I am often asked: “What is the difference between workplace bullying, harassment, and violence?” This article will discuss the answer.
Workplace bullying involves unwanted, recurring aggressiveness that causes psychological and physical harm, which creates a psychological power imbalance between the bully and target. There are three main concepts that are central to defining workplace bullying:

* Bullying is repetitive. Bullying does not refer to incivility or someone who’s just having a bad day. In fact, in an effort to quantify bullying, researchers indicate that bullying needs to occur at least once per week for a period of six months, and on average, last for a period of two to five years.

* Bullying causes psychological and physical harm to targets and witnesses. Targets of bullies frequently experience anxiety, depression, stress, and other issues, which ultimately result in physical problems. The stress of being “beaten down” at work each day cause sleeplessness, headaches, stomach aches, heart disease, and other maladies. Research shows that bullying can also cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and even lead to suicide.

* Bullying is about psychological power. An initial bullying incident occurs, but for whatever reason the target doesn’t speak out. Over time, if the target doesn’t speak up, the bully will pick on the target more frequently and aggressively until there is an understanding that the bully has power and the target does not. The abuse ultimately leaves the target feeling helpless.

Bullying behaviors can be divided into three categories: Aggressive communication, Humiliation, and Manipulation of work. The following are the key traits of each.

* Aggressive communication – Insulting or making offensive remarks; shouting, yelling, and angry outbursts; bypassing co-workers in order to avoid communicating with them; harsh finger pointing; invading someone’s personal space; and harsh emails or other electronic communication.
* Humiliation – Ridiculing or teasing; spreading rumors or gossip; ignoring peers when they walk by; playing harsh practical jokes; and taunting with the use of social media, intranet, etc.
* Manipulation of work – Removing tasks imperative to job responsibilities; giving unmanageable workloads and impossible deadlines; arbitrarily changing tasks; using employee evaluations to document alleged decreased quality of work; purposely withholding pertinent information; and leaving employees out of email correspondence or meeting invitations.

Discrimination occurs when an employee or manager treats one group of people less fairly than other groups of people based on demographics such as race, religion, gender, nationality, or another defining characteristic. Examples include denying time off for a religious holiday or taking responsibilities away from a woman because she is pregnant.

This is defined as unwanted conduct that is intimidating, hostile or abusive; interferes with an employee’s ability to work; or is a condition of continued employment. Examples include using racially derogatory language, telling inappropriate jokes, or making offensive remarks about skin color or age. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment & Bullying: Similarities & Differences
The defining difference between harassment and bullying is that workplace bullying is legal in most of the U.S., while discrimination and harassment are illegal. Harassment refers to protected characteristics such as race or gender, while workplace bullying does not.
However, if someone is bullied due to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or a host of other reasons, then the behavior is against the law because it is considered harassment. In such cases, the targets of the behavior have legal recourse.
If an individual is an equal opportunity offender and bullies a variety of people from different categories, then the behavior is not considered harassment and is therefore legal.
Despite their legal differences, bullying and harassment often include relatively similar behaviors – and both are about power.

What about Intention?
The issue of bullies’ intention is widely debated in academic circles. Some fervently believe that bullying is intentional while others do not.
There are currently four states where workplace bullying is illegal. The laws all refer to it as abusive conduct, but it is the same thing as bullying. Two states (Utah and California) require intention, one doesn’t mention it at all (Tennessee), while the fourth (Nevada) indicates that bullying is illegal regardless of whether it “is intended to cause or actually causes harm.”
In summary, if the behavior is causing one or more people to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or stressed out, then it should be stopped.

Workplace Violence
Workplace violence can involve any act of aggression, physical assault, or threatening behavior. There are three main levels of workplace violence. While Level 3 violence is the type that gets the media’s attention, Levels 1 and 2 occur in workplaces every day. Here is a brief look at each:

* Level 1 – Verbal aggression: Constant refusal to cooperate, spreading rumors to harm others, being aggressively argumentative, or showing belligerent behavior toward others.
* Level 2 – Unreasonable behavior: Refusal to obey company policies and procedures, sabotaging equipment and/or stealing property for revenge, or destroying property.
* Level 3 – Physical acts: Making suicidal threats, physical fights, or committing arson, rape, or murder.

Bullying & Violence: Similarities & Differences
In reviewing these traits one can see that bullying and violence can easily overlap. However, differences do exist. Workplace violence is overt and physical, while bullying is insidious and manipulative. Perpetrators of workplace violence throw things, become visibly angry, and make clear threats of violence. Bullies, on the other hand, use workflow and communication to bully, such as overworking the target, giving deadlines that are impossible to meet, and using evaluations to document alleged poor performance.
In rare cases, bullying turns into violence because the target “goes postal” and gains retribution against the bully through violence. Most often, however, lost deep in their feelings of shame, helplessness, and depression, a target may commit suicide.
In other instances, the bully’s anger and frustration at the target get the best of him and he lashes out. I was an expert on a court case against a large retailer where the bully punched the target. The employer was sued because the target had called the retailer’s risk management team when the bully’s behavior began getting worse. The risk management team told the target to finish his shift, and he would be transferred afterwards. Unfortunately, during that time the bully’s behavior escalated into violence.

In conclusion, negative behavior at work should be thought of as being on a spectrum, with incivility at one end, bullying somewhere in the middle, and violence at the other extreme.

Catherine Mattice is the president of Civility Partners, LLC (www.civilitypartners.com) a consulting firm that specializes in developing systemic solutions for negative behaviors in the workplace. She is also the co-author of Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work.