Workplace Violence and Bullying: Are they that different?

Apr 23, 2018 4:37:15 PM

As experts who have traveled extensively to consult and train our clients on workplace violence prevention and bullying, we are often asked “What is the difference between workplace bullying and violence? Where does bullying cross the line?” It’s a great question and one worthy of clarification as we understand and address these types of behaviors in the workplace.

In our experience, there is often overlap in the behaviors that we see with both types of disruptive workplace conduct, each of which can cause significant distress to employees and the workforce at large.

It's important to understand both the distinctions, similarities and overlap between these behaviors. This understanding helps us determine appropriate responses and interventions, and allows us to recognize when behaviors may be moving from bullying to a more serious conduct that may involve a threat to the physical safety  of an employee, customer or vendor.

Below, we discuss some of the similarities and differences between each of these problematic behaviors.

Understanding Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is unwanted, recurring aggressiveness that causes psychological and physical harm, and creates a psychological power imbalance between the bully and targets. There are three concepts central to defining workplace bullying:

  • Bullying must be repeated. Bullying does not refer to incivility or someone having a bad day. In fact, in an effort to quantify bullying so they can study it, academic research indicates bullying happens at least once per week for a period of six months, and on average, lasts for a period of two to five years.
  • Bullying causes psychological and physical harm to targets and witnesses. People who self-identify as targets experience anxiety, depression, stress and other issues, which ultimately result in physical problems. The stress of being beaten down at work every day causes sleepless nights, headaches, heartaches, stomach aches, heart disease, and more. Research has shown that being bullied can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), thoughts of suicide, and suicide itself.
  • Bullying is about psychological power. An initial bullying incident occurs, and for whatever reason the target doesn’t speak out. Over time, and as long as the target doesn’t speak up, the bully will continue to push on the target more frequently and more aggressively until there is an understanding that the bully has power and the target does not. The abuse ultimately leaves the target feeling helpless.

Further, bullying behaviors can be divided into three clear categories:

  1. Aggressive communication: Insulting or offensive remarks, shouting, yelling, angry outbursts, going around co-workers in order to avoid communicating with them and harsh finger pointing, invasion of space, abusive emails or other e-communication.
  2. Acts aimed at humiliation: Humiliating or ridiculing the target, teasing, spreading rumors or gossip, ignoring targets when they walk by, playing harsh practical jokes, and taunting target with the use of social media, intranet, etc.
  3. Manipulation of work: Removing tasks imperative to job responsibilities, assigning unmanageable workloads & impossible deadlines, arbitrarily changing tasks, using employee evaluations to document supposed decreased quality of work, and humiliating the target through manipulation of work assignment and product.

What is Workplace Violence?

The American National Standard on Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention (ASIS/SHRM VP1.1-2011) states that the working definition of workplace violence includes:

  • "physical violence toward a person, as well as threats of violence, whether direct or indirect (veiled). This category of behavior includes all forms of physical violence (irrespective of how harmful or severe) and all stated threats of violence, whether direct, (“I’m going to kill you!”), indirect (“I’m going to make sure you get what you deserve!”), or conditional (“If he fires me, I’m going to kill him.)”

The American National Standard also emphasizes the importance of “other behaviors of concern” beyond acts of violence and stated threats. These include (but are not limited to):

  • behaviors that might serve as “warning signs” or precursors to possible violence, and include erratic and bizarre behavior caused by mental illness or substance abuse, stalking, overt physical intimidation and aggression, and suicidal statements from an individual who may be depressed and despondent. 

It is important to note that workplace violence isn’t always physical - and behaviors that occur which are not overt threats or physical assault can nonetheless create significant and sometimes paralyzing feelings of fear for employees. Spreading threatening rumors and gossip, internet bullying, stalking behaviors and explosive tirades can all create a sense of fear for physical safety, as well as related psychological stress symptoms such as sleeplessness, headaches, and anxiety. When the target experiences fear for his or her physical safety, the behavior would also fall under the category of workplace violence.

So, where’s the overlap between Bullying & Violence?

As shown in the graphic below, there is overlap for some behaviors with regard to workplace violence and bullying. 

Overlap Bullying Workplace Violence

With bullying, we see behaviors such as altering or purposely hindering workflow and communication, bottlenecking information, overworking the target, giving impossible deadlines, and using performance evaluations to document alleged poor performance. Additionally, we see behaviors also evidenced in low to mid-level workplace violence such an insulting and offensive remarks, shouting, taunting and offensive comments, to name a few. It goes without saying that these bullying behaviors can cause significant distress, and be emotionally damaging and devastating to the target.

Download! So, where's the overlap between Workplace Bullying and Violence?

Similarly, workplace violence can be overt and physical, as well as insidious and subtle. However, perpetrators of workplace violence may also physically harm others, throw objects, vandalize personal or organizational property, become visibly angry and make clear or implied threats of violence. In other cases, the perpetrator may not say a word, but instead will engage in physical posturing, teasing, joking about past violent incidents, or other subtle yet threatening behaviors that create fear for the physical safety of the intended target.

Overlap between workplace violence behaviors and bullying does occur, and examples are provided in the circle in the diagram above. Here we can see similar behaviors in both workplace violence and bullying scenarios. These behaviors may begin as bullying but at some point rise to the level of workplace violence when the target begins to fear for his or her physical safety  because of the behavior of the perpetrator. In other cases, bullying can also evolve into workplace violence, not only because the bully engages in violence, but also because sometimes the target becomes violent in an attempt to protect himself and retaliate against the bully.

So, while there is overlap in behaviors seen in both bullying and workplace violence, the distinguishing factor is concern for physical safety on the part of the target. In fact, the American National Standard states that “…in the absence of a concern for physical safety, it (bullying) does not meet the criteria for workplace violence”. (ASIS/SHRM VP1.1-2011).

So, what’s the bottom line in addressing both Bullying & Workplace Violence?

Leadership Policy Culture


The similarities between workplace violence and bullying continue when we look at appropriate organizational prevention and response to these behaviors, and the intersection between policy, leadership and culture help guide us in addressing these issues in proactive and organizationally healthy ways.

  1. Safe workplaces begin with strong leadership. C--Suite “buy-in” is a must as workplaces develop programs and policies that promote respect and safety in the workplace. Without executive leadership support, workplace safety and respect initiatives aren’t successful – and in fact, most don’t survive beyond the initial planning stages.
  1. Strong leadership and training help establish a culture of respect. All leaders, from the C—Suite to front line supervisors, need to “walk the talk” in all aspects of workplace safety and respect, follow through on cultural initiatives, and serve as role models to the workforce. Safety and respect should be included in all aspects of workplace performance and culture, and be attached as learning objectives to performance management processes.

Further, in establishing a culture of safety and respect, regular training objectives for the workforce should include the following: 

  • Workplace bullying and harassment prevention
  • Workplace violence prevention and reporting
  • Conflict management
  • Communication skills
  • Stress management
  • Internal customer service
  • Optimism; resilience
  • Respect and civility
  • Diversity

With additional training for supervisors and managers in:

  1. Finally, policies and procedures create a protective framework for responding to such behaviors when they do occur. It’s important to establish policies and procedures that are clear, enforceable, and provide a clear description of prohibited conduct, and that outline disciplinary and other corrective responses to bullying and threatening behaviors in the workplace. These policies should be vetted by legal counsel to ensure that they comply with all federal and employment laws. In the case of both bullying and workplace violence, it’s also important to review what policies your organization may have in place already to make sure that they are current, and include behaviors such as digital harassment, bullying and threats in their list of examples of prohibited conduct.
Download! So, where’s the overlap between  Workplace Bullying & Violence?

Co-Written by Catherine Mattice Zundel, Civility Partners and Suzanne Hoffman, Ph.D.

Topics: WPV Bullying