Discrimination or harassment in the workplace should never be tolerated or ignored. However, both terms are sometimes used interchangeably and it can be a bit confusing when trying to see if you have a viable lawsuit. But with a closer look, you’ll see there are notable (and important) differences.
Understanding The Differences Between Discrimination, Bullying, And Harassment In The Workplace
Discrimination occurs when someone gets treated less favorably because of his, her, or their legally protected characteristics, such as race, gender, disability, etc. This can occur even when the offending behavior isn’t necessarily directed at a single person. Unfortunately, the law prohibits discrimination only if it’s based on those protected categories, meaning there are forms of discrimination or unfair treatment that are not illegal (i.e. your political beliefs or favorite sports team). This difference is critical to be aware of when you are considering taking legal action. When it doubt – call and ask an employment attorney!
Harassment occurs when there is unwanted and offensive actions or comments related to your legally protected characteristics (i.e. gender, sex, race, disability, etc.). Sexual harassment falls under this umbrella and occurs when an employee is the subject of unwelcome attention or advances of a sexual nature. Harassment can take the form of unsolicited comments (written or oral), gestures, physical contacts, verbal/nonverbal or physical conduct. It can even be harassment if it is directed to an individual because of their association with a protected class. Harassment occurs when this unwanted and offensive is so severe or pervasive, that it creates a hostile work environment that interferes with the employees’s ability to work.
Bullying is a behavior that affects an employee’s mental health and physical health as a result of unreasonable, repeated behavior. Workplace bullying is the repeated, unreasonable actions of an individual or group directed towards a co-worker or employee that is intended to intimidate, therefore creating a risk to the health or safety of the victim.
What Is The Difference?
Harassment and bullying involve behavior that is intended to intimidate, threaten, humiliate or offend others. While bullying may sometimes be considered illegal harassment under certain circumstances, not all bullying is illegal. Unlawful harassment and discrimination only arise when the actions against that person are influenced by that person’s protected class.
Below, you’ll find a list of all the protected characteristics under California and Federal employment law.
For example, if someone is bullying you because of your protected class, this would actually be considered illegal harassment. However, if you were being treated poorly because of your taste in music or political beliefs (i.e. not protected by law), then that would just be considered bullying and is not considered illegal.
Difference Between Workplace Harassment And Discrimination
While harassment is usually offensive words or conduct that is biased (based on any of the protected classes described above) that is expressed through interpersonal relations in the workplace, discrimination is usually poor treatment expressed through official employment actions like demotion, termination or failure to promote. Discrimination can also be expressed through harassment, when the actions (verbal or physical) of a boss, supervisor, or co-worker creates a hostile work environment. The two claims will almost always go hand-in-hand if there was offensive words or conduct that led up to an adverse employment action like termination.
Example: Tom is the manager of a company that sells office supplies and is responsible for assigning shifts to the employees. Lauren is an employee at the company and recently became a single mother of two.
Lauren is frequently scheduled to work late afternoon and night shifts, interfering with her ability to pick up her children from school and take care of them before bedtime. As a single mother, she is overwhelmed with many responsibilities but does her best to manage her work-life balance.
One day, Lauren asked Tom if he could start scheduling her to work in the morning, so that she could tend to her kids. Tom said he would consider helping and switch her shifts, but only if she would go out on a date with him.
Tom is guilty of committing quid pro quo sexual harassment against Lauren. As the manager, it is not under Tom’s purview to be asking employees out on dates in exchange for work-related benefits, nor is it within his job description. As such, Tom’s actions are considered workplace harassment, not employment discrimination.
If, however, Tom then fired Lauren because he believed women with children should not be working, then Tom is guilty of discrimination based on gender.
Examples Of Workplace Discrimination
Discrimination based on gender
“My manager told me we don’t hire women because the men will be too distracted and flirt with them, making our office less productive.”
Discrimination based on physical or mental disability
“I work with people with mental disabilities. They apply for jobs that they have the skills for but aren’t given the chance because of their disability.”
Discrimination based on perceived sexual orientation
“My boss interviewed someone and told me he is not going to hire him because his voice was too high-pitched and effeminate. He said he has worked with people of that sexual orientation before and it was annoying to him.”
Discrimination based on family status
“I overheard my supervisors discussing my co-worker’s pregnancy. They said it was unfortunate since it prevented her from working to the best of her ability and once the baby arrives, she will be too distracted to do a good job at work.”
Discrimination based on race
“After my manager and I interviewed someone for an open position, she said she was not going to hire him and was never going to hire someone from that race, as she had a bad experience in the past working with someone else from the same racial background.”
Harassment based on age
“The young employees of the firm purposefully whisper when an older employee walks by to throw him off his game. They want to make him feel uncomfortable so that he finally leaves. He doesn’t know how to use the latest technology and he’s going to retire soon anyways.”
Discrimination based on religion
“Whenever my co-worker attends to his daily prayers, I catch my boss rolling his eyes. He told me that he would never hire someone from that religion again, as he thinks it’s wasteful of business hours and company resources.”