Difference between Bullying and Harassment

Updated on October 3, 2017

Many people say that every kid growing up has a bully. And some are bullies to others. But just because this has happened in the past does not mean that is it acceptable in the present. There is a reason we have anti-harassment laws. So, are bullying and harassment one and the same thing, then? Not really. Read this article for more information on the matter.


A student being bullied by peers

Bullying is repeated, unwanted, and aggressive behavior a person is subjected to by one or more of his peers. It involves a target (the victim), a form of physical and/or psychological abuse, and the intention of the bully to dominate the target. The attitude described as bullying involves:

  • name-calling
  • teasing
  • making inappropriate sexual comments
  • making rude hand gestures
  • pushing and pulling
  • any type of unsolicited physical contact
  • rumor spreading
  • intentionally getting the person excluded from various groups
  • embarrassing the person

Although we tend to think of bullying as something that happens to children in their group of peers, in reality it is something that happens to adults in the workplace as well. In this case, physical contact is reduced, but there are consistent acts of professional sabotage, psychological and organizational abuse.

The main reason a person chooses a target is a hidden characteristic. Most acts of malice are explained by personal frustrations that cause a person to lash out at those they see as being opposite. For example, a student who cannot get good grades can lash out at a good student. The same goes for employees in companies when it comes to some of them getting promotions and appreciation.

Acts of bullying can vary in intensity and creativity, even to the point where not even the victim realizes he is being bullied. In the case of adults, for example, a boss or a co-worker can make unrealistic demands and comments on a person’s inability to deliver great results. This makes addressing the issue more difficult.

When it comes to children, adults have to be informed of the situation in order to take action. In a corporation, HR must be informed.

A man trying to sexually harass a co-worker

Harassment is unwanted behavior that harms and upsets the targeted individual. This type of action is punishable by law and it covers a wide range of malicious acts done by one person to another. This includes physical touch, intrusion on one’s personal space, damage to personal belongings, and making unsolicited sexual advances; all of a very aggressive and repeated manner (even two incidents are enough for a case).

Regardless of how it is done, harassment is meant to create a hostile environment by degrading and humiliating the targeted individual. This can be done through whatever means possible, from threats to name calling, gossiping, and social exclusion.

Harassment is something many states take seriously and there are laws punishing those who do intentional harm. One of the best-known forms of harassment is of the sexual nature. In this case, companies tend to lose a lot of money in legal procedures against employees if they do not act to stop harassment in any way. In most cases, the person harassing a coworker is dismissed, fined, or sent to special seminars.

The main reason a person chooses to harass another is connected to the victim belonging to a specific group: gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, disability, family status, etc. Discrimination is at the root of this type of behavior. However, with harassment, a person acts upon these impulses in a desire to cause harm and to isolate the other individual.

How well protected an individual is when it comes to acts of harassment depends on the policies of the company and on the laws of the state. Either way, the HR department is to be notified of any such acts. If they fail to address the issue, the company is held responsible.

Bullying vs Harassment

So what is the difference between bullying and harassment?

By definition, bullying is unwanted and aggressive behavior one person is subjected to by their peers, while harassment is repeated and harmful behavior meant to humiliate another person. So far they seem like the same thing. They are both done by children and adults alike, in all types of social settings.

However, when it comes to bullying, the target is chosen based on a hidden characteristic that sparks feelings of inadequacy and personal frustration. On the other hand, harassment targets are chosen on grounds of discrimination. The harasser will choose them because they are part of a specific group: age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. With discrimination being so obvious in these cases, harassment is illegal.

Forms of bullying and forms of harassment are more or less the same. However, sexual harassment stands out more in companies, while physical aggression occurs more in cases of school bullying. Also, it is easier to spot a case of harassment as the comments will eventually point to the fact that this is a specific type of targeting. In the case of bullying, however, things are less obvious because the victim is chosen according to very personal feelings of frustration and inadequacy on the part of the bully.

Bullying is done for the sake of making the victim decrease in the attacker’s eyes (he may have good grades, but he whimpers like a baby), while harassment is done for the sake of establishing dominance (show them who is boss).

Comparison Chart

Must be acted uponIs punishable by law
Victim is chosen based on hidden characteristicsVictim is chosen based on discrimination
Is less obviousIs obvious
Schoolyard bullies are the best exampleSexual harassment is the best example
Done to decrease the victim in the attacker’s eyesDone to establish dominance
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