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What is the Difference Between Bullying and Harassment?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many people may consider bullying and harassment to cover essentially the same territory of unwanted intimidation, but there are some important differences to consider. Workplace and school bullying can be primarily confrontational and involve physical threats and intimidation, while workplace or school harassment can be more of an ongoing series of mental, sexual or physical abuse.

An office bully quite often confronts his or her victim directly, while an office harasser could use more passive-aggressive methods to intimidate his or her target from a distance. Bullying and harassment are both considered to be offensive behaviors, but the legal remedies for bullying are often different than those for harassment. Bullying is generally considered workplace violence, while harassment is often categorized as workplace intimidation.

An office or school bully will quite often use his or her imposing physical presence as the main source of intimidation tactics. The victim of a bully could fear serious physical injury if the bully's demands are not met. An office or school harasser, on the other hand, may not be physically stronger or more imposing than his or her victim, but the victim could fear public ridicule or personal damage if his or her harasser's demands are not met. A bully often relies on the victim's fear of physical pain or reluctance to fight back, while a harasser relies on the victim's fear of public embarrassment or exposure. An office bully will confront his or her victim in the hallway, while a harasser may choose to make the victim the target of cruel office jokes or relentless sexual innuendo.

A bully can actually be in a position of authority or seniority over his or her victims. A department manager or foreman could take advantage of his or her authority to bully subordinate employees into performing humiliating tasks or involuntarily accepting unpopular shift assignments. A workplace bully often needs this leverage as a superior in order to keep his or her victim in a state of intimidation. A workplace harasser, on the other hand, may be a co-worker of the victim or even a subordinate. A difference between bullying and harassment is that harassment could take the form of unsolicited sexual advances, offensive jokes, deliberate miscommunication, office gossip or workplace sabotage.

Another important difference between bullying and harassment is the way such incidents can be addressed legally. An office bully who escalates his or her behavior to actual physical contact with the victim can be placed under arrest and charged with assault. A victim can document and report a bully's threats to a trusted superior or human resources director, who can then take the proper action to separate the bully from his or her employment. Incidents of sexual or physical harassment not involving actual violence, however, must be addressed through a different set of legal procedures. The victim may need to file a detailed report which document specific incidents of workplace harassment. The alleged harasser may be given an equal opportunity to address those claims in a court of law or in arbitration proceedings. Essentially, workplace bullying is harassment with an emphasis on physical intimidation, while workplace harassment violates the victim's civil rights with or without the element of physical intimidation.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to SmartCapitalMind, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By uypoi — On May 14, 2014

Having researched avoidant, passive aggressive abuse for over 15 years, I would like to say that while bullying can incorporate different forms of abuse, it is unnecessarily confusing to separately coin a term such as 'bullying' or 'harassment' as a separate, specific phenomenon; the image the word bullying conjures up is not so serious childhood playground scraps. Harassment sounds like someone getting bugged at work. They are weak terms which are not accurately descriptive

I prefer the universal term 'abuse'. In addressing its nature and seriousness, the term 'abuse' is much more appropriate. And then we can look into subtypes of abuse - physical, mental/emotional, social etc. and then we have direct and indirect i.e., passive-aggressive forms of abuse.

My arena of research is passive aggressive avoidant abuse.

By anon305147 — On Nov 24, 2012

I disagree that bullies only confront their victims head on. There are plenty of sources out there that explains the more passive-aggressive approach of female bullying techniques. The line between bullying and harassment is not so clear cut.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to SmartCapitalMind, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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