Bullying & Harassment in the Workplace

by Fraser Sherman; Updated September 26, 2017
Businesspeople arguing

Legally, workplace harassment is different from workplace bullying. Harassment is offensive conduct based on a factor such as the victim's race, religion, gender or age. If offensive conduct isn't based on discrimination, it's just bullying. It may hurt as much as harassment, but the victim usually has no legal defense.

Unwelcome Conduct

An occasional offensive joke or a one-time incident isn't illegal unless it's an extreme case, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Harassment becomes illegal when you have to endure it to keep your job or if it creates a hostile or abusive environment.

Offensive conduct can include:

• Offensive jokes • Racial slurs • Intimidation • Physical assault • Insults • Showing offense pictures • Threats, including physical or threats or threats to fire you. • Interfering with work performance. (ref1) • Unwanted sexual contact or requests for sexual favors.

If you regularly witness someone being harassed at work, the EEOC says, you may qualify as a victim even if you're not the harasser's target.

Bullying Can Be Legal

There are many ways to bully someone that don't break anti-harassment laws. A boss who screams at every subordinate and belittles all of them regardless of race, religion or gender may not be a harasser. Insulting an employee for her personality or clothes may not be harassment if it isn't tied to race, gender or other protected characteristics.

The Nolo legal website says California defines bullying as offensive, humiliating or intimidating conduct. At the time of writing, neither the federal government nor any state government has outlawed workplace bullying that doesn't also qualify as harassment.

Responding to Harassment

If the harassment hurts your career -- termination, denied promotion, denied earned bonus or raise -- the EEOC says your employer is legally liable along with the harasser. The company is also liable if you report the harassment and your employer does nothing. If the company has a complaint procedure, follow it to file your report. If nothing changes, file a complaint with the EEOC or an equivalent state agency. Contacting the government is a necessary first step if you want to take your employer to court.

Fighting the Bullies

Workplace bullying is harder to deal with, as you don't have the same legal options. In an interview with the Miami Herald, attorney Jezabel Lloronte says it's worth reporting bullying to HR, but you have no other avenues if the company doesn't take action. The EEOC says one exception is if you're bullied because you reported discrimination, assisted in a discrimination investigation, or opposed discriminatory practices. If you suffer retaliatory bullying, that does qualify as harassment.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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