Bullying vs. Harassment in the Workplace: What’s the Difference?

In Sanders vs. Madison Square Garden1 a jury awarded Ms. Anucha Browne Sanders, a former executive for the NBA’s New York Knicks, $11.6 million dollars in punitive damages after alleging sexual harassment and discrimination against the New York Knicks General Manager and Madison Square Garden. Testimony revealed that Sanders was constantly cursed at by some of her employers and was the target of unwanted touching and solicitations for intercourse in the workplace. Distinguishing between harassment and bullying in the workplace may not always be easy. This post will address the differences between bullying and harassment and the potential consequences to organizations if these issues are not addressed in the workplace.


Bullying is the presence of repeated undesired aggression that causes mental or physical damage to the person in question. This form of abuse is normally accompanied by a mutually acknowledged imbalance of perceived power. The aggressor bullies at will and the victim does not believe that he or she can do anything to prevent the harm. There are three factors that must be present for the conduct in question to be properly labeled as bullying.

First, the actions must be repetitive. Bullying cannot occur on merely one occasion; there must be a demonstrated pattern of abuse over a substantial period of time. Everyone may have a bad day every now and then, but bullies will abuse their victims for several months, or even years.

Second, the victim must experience either psychological or physical harm because of the bully’s actions. Witnesses of bullying may also be damaged, either emotionally or physically, because of the conduct.

Third, there will be a presence of psychological power over the victim. The aggression, if left unchecked, will grow over time. The victim will feel powerless and likely give in to the abuse.

Bullying may take on several different forms in the workplace.

First, bullying can look like aggressive communication. It may involve yelling, insults, malicious communication through emails or texts, or physically invading another individual’s personal space.

The second type of bullying takes the form of shaming, either through humiliation, slander, gossip, or even improper pranks.

The third type of workplace bullying is an inappropriate distribution or treatment of work assignments. This could involve misplacing essential elements of the victim’s work, assigning an overly burdensome amount of work, or imposing unrealistic deadlines.


Harassment, on the other hand, involves unwanted treatment that impedes the victim’s ability to work. This treatment must be severe and pervasive. Harassment is based on a protected class under state or federal law such as race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or another characteristic protected by law.

Sexual harassment is one category of harassment and it involves unwanted solicitations of a sexual nature.

Legal Distinction

According to state and federal laws, harassment is illegal. Victims of bullying, however, do not have the same legal protections under U.S. federal and state laws.

Regardless of legal prohibitions or lack thereof, employers are encouraged to take workplace bullying seriously. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment and the consequences for failing to do so could cost the organization in more ways than one. Organizations who do not address workplace bullying could be liable for the victim’s injuries, negligence in both hiring and retaining employees, or failure to provide proper duty of care.


Bullying and harassment in the workplace are both similar and different, but obviously, both are bad for individuals and for the organization. One approach to prevention is to have policies that express the organization’s cultural values. A religious organization can also express spiritual values on how people should be treated. Management should then make it clear to all that these values will be enforced. It’s imperative for employers to take seriously and remain proactive in addressing all allegations right away. Organization should consider consulting with legal counsel if they are unsure how to respond to a claim of bullying or harassment. In addition to limiting legal liability, it’s in everyone’s best interest to promote a safe working environment


1 525 F.Supp.2d 364 (2007).

Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations