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Is there a difference between bullying and harassment in the workplace?

by , 09 December 2013
Bullying and harassment in the workplace happens more often than you think. And it's up to you to protect your employees from workplace bullies. Your employee can take you to court if he's harassed or bullied at work, because he has protection under the Employment Equity Act and the Labour Relations Act. But are bullying and harassment the same thing? Not according to the law...Read on to discover the difference between bullying and harassment.

The Labour Law for Managers Loose Leaf Service explains that people often use the words bullying and harassment interchangeably, but there's a legal difference.

The difference between bullying and harassment explained

What is bullying?

Bullying is intimidating, insulting and demeaning behaviour that erodes your employee's confidence and lowers his self-esteem.

It's mostly ongoing and causes a decrease in productivity. It also causes morale damage to more employees than you may realise, because bullies often target more than one person.

The most common characteristic is that bullying is persistent. It isn't usually a once-off incident. If it's isolated, you can deal with it there and then and it probably won't happen again.

What is harassment?

While there's no definition of harassment in our labour legislation, the closest one comes from the Code of Good Practice in line with Employment Equity Act, where it says harassment is any:

'Unwanted or unsolicited attention based on one or more of the prohibited grounds... The conduct can be verbal or non-verbal. It affects the dignity of the affected person or creates a hostile working environment. It often contains an element of coersion or abuse of power by the harasser.'

A 'prohibited ground' is anything in Section6 of the Employment Equity Act. For example, race, gender, sex, religious or political beliefs and disability.

Important: Bullying carries the risk of morale damage, a high staff turnover and losing key staff members; harassment on the other hand means huge penalties.

If your employee can prove harassment and that you did nothing about it, the potential damages can be up to 24 months penalty.

Is there a way to deal with bullying and harassment in your workplace?


Have an anti-bullying policy and have clear procedures for victims of harassment to lay complaints when they feel they're victims of bullying or harassment.

Knowing the difference between bullying and harassment will help ensure you take prompt action when employees complain.

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