Is Unfair Treatment at Work “Workplace Bullying”?

Is Unfair Treatment at Work “Workplace Bullying”?

Does all “unfair” treatment that causes workplace conflict count as “bullying” at work?

In a recent research report offered by Canada Life and posted on an employee benefits blog, the authors note that 10% of the respondents to their survey on workplace conditions indicate that they have missed work because of illness stemming from their feelings that the workplace is unfair.

Here are the numbers:

  • 36% of respondents said they have seen colleagues receive praise and recognition in the workplace, even though they feel they have not worked as hard as they should.
  • 64% of respondents said they have seen colleagues benefiting from favouritism.
  • 13% felt they had been treated unfairly due to prolonged absences required for treatment of physical illnesses

Workplace Bullying or Not?

So, I’m wondering, are these behaviors workplace bullying? Perhaps they stem from managers who do not understand the value of creating a cohesive team. Perhaps they don’t closely manage employees to be sure that recognition and praise is fairly applied. But while this behavior may be bad management, it doesn’t seem to qualify as bullying.

Of late many behaviors are being categorized as workplace bullying that don’t fit the bill.  While it’s important that we are all more aware of the issues of workplace conflict, if we determine that ALL dissatisfactions and even unfair behaviors are bullying, then we dilute the issues of real bullying and we instill unnecessary fear into managers and leaders. I think it is important, perhaps critical, to be clear about what is and what is NOT bullying behavior.

For instance, what I would call “classic” bullying is really targeted harassment that results in physical and emotional illness that we can measure with absenteeism, doctors reports, turnover, etc. Such bullying behavior consists of ruthless verbal assaults aimed at one person. The outcome is almost always illness, and often that the target leaves the job. Then the bully moves on to another target.

Bullying behavior is a serious problem that requires specific solutions. Beyond the “classic” bullying behaviors, we have multiple causes and consequences of workplace conflict which require their own distinct solutions, and cannot and should not be called bullying.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years.  My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.  You can contact me here.

Sign up for my free report on “Costs of Conflict” and other detailed reports, tips, and exclusive content.

  • Franca

    In Australia, as bad as the legislative framework for bullying is we do currently have 2 different versions of the defintiion of bullying floating around the different states in Australia. So it is important when people are wanting to know if what is happening to them is bullying, that they first check what is the legal definition of bullying in their State. To find out the bullying definitions in Australia you can go to

  • Bernie Althofer

    Hello Franca
    The lack of clarity regarding what is and what is bullying and harassment makes it difficult not only for individuals, but also for organisations. From personal experience, bad management sometimes gets called bullying and vice versa. It also happens that it some cases examples being used to explain what might be bullying is reported in the media in ways that only adds to the confusion.
    Any incident involving negative conflict is involved needs to be investigated sooner rather than later. It is also important to understand the context in which something was said or done, and it is important to understand whether or not there was any intent (although in some cases, it has been suggested that intent is not relevant) and that the determinant is whether or not an individual perceived they were being bullied.
    When organisations do not provide people with an opportunity to participate in interactive training where they can seek a deeper understanding of what is meant by the various terms, then the problem will continue. Two people can read one definition and develop two differing understandings about what is meant, and they act accordingly.
    Where there is a lack of common definitions and understanding, the end result can be devastating for some individuals.
    It does seem however that bullying and harassment are not the same, even though many people seem to believe they are. This has been discussed in a number of other forums over a long period of time, and there still seems to be no agreement, so the problem continues.

  • Discussing definitions is always helpful. From my POV if workplace bullying behavior is harassing behavior. Perhaps not technically harassing (prohibited by law) but certainly harassing. Here is a good definition of harassment:
    the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, an attempt to force someone to quit a job or grant sexual favors, apply illegal pressure to collect a bill, or merely gain sadistic pleasure from making someone fearful or anxious.

    However, not all workplace conflicts are bullying behaviors. Therein lies the real discussion.