Understanding the difference between Bullying & Harassment



Its’ tricky enough to differentiate between bullying & harassment. As HR professionals it is imperative that we understand the differences and take the correct action to rectify the situation to address the issue to avoid a Fairwork claim.


So how do we differentiate between bullying and harassment


Harassment tends to be unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Harassment is easier to identify as the behaviour is more obvious such as leaning over someone, using abusive language, harassing the victim in front of others.


Harassment is covered by Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act as well as common law assault.


Where as bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting behaviour, abusive and misuse of power through means of intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the victim.


Examples of bullying (but not limited to):


  • Unwarranted humiliating or offensive behaviour toward an individual to group of employees

  • Persistent negative malicious attacks on personal or professional performance typically characterised as predictable, unfair, irrational and often unseen.

  • An abuse of power or position that cause such anxiety that people gradually lose all belief in themselves suffering physical ill health and mental distress as a result which often leads to suicide for the victims.

  • Excluding or isolating employee

  • Undermining work performance by deliberately withholding vital information

  • Suppression of ideas

  • Giving the employee impossible tasks

  • Constant unconstructive criticism

Bullying can be subtle bullying and take place in private without witnesses. The victim is usually seen as a threat that must be dominated. Bullies are often devious, operating out of sight of others or witnesses.


The victim will usually be too embarrassed or scared to admit the bullying in fear of further intimidation or punishment from the bully. A pattern of behaviour will usually need to be identified in order to prove that bullying has occurred.


As HR professionals we have to be vigilant and constantly listen or observe the behaviours of employees to recognise when someone is being bullied or being harassed. There are times when we have to follow our gut feelings. Even if you hear of someone talking about another employee being bullied, we have to take action and ask the right questions to determine if there is bullying or harassment in the team. I have followed up with a rumour about bullying and it turned out to be true.


In conclusion whether you think there is bullying or harassment, don’t hesitate to ask questions and follow up with the employee. Do some investigations and talk to other employees to find out the truth. This action may stop any further harassment and bullying and will help the victim feel they have someone they can go to for help!


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