Bullying vs. Conflict – Know the Difference

Over the last decade, there’s been an increasing awareness of the impacts of bullying – from celebrity-endorsed anti-bullying campaigns to legislation addressing the prevention of bullying and harassment at work. While this heightened awareness is good news, it has also brought with it some confusion when it comes to distinguishing between conflict and bullying.

As leaders and people managers, it can be a challenge to differentiate between the two, and they’re often mistaken for the same thing! But while bullying is never okay, conflict in the workplace is normal, and a certain amount can even be healthy. After all, constructive conflict is needed to move ideas and companies forward, and to question the status quo in useful ways. With enormous potential impacts to both individuals and organizations, it’s important to correctly identify which is which, since bullying and conflict call for very different action plans.  

According to WorkSafe BC, bullying and harassment happens when someone takes an action that they “knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause someone to be humiliated or intimidated”. Sometimes, it is obvious that a scenario meets this criteria, and sometimes, a closer examination is needed to decide.

While no two issues are exactly the same, and there are many shades of grey, there are some indicators that can signal whether a workplace issue is conflict or bullying.

Is it a two-way street?

Bullying is often one sided, with one person or party targeting another. Conflict, in contrast, is usually a two-way street, and may involve a simple difference of opinion or differing perspectives. With bullying, one person is targeted and feels upset, while with conflict, both parties are typically equally affected.

Does it involve a power imbalance?

Bullying involves a power imbalance, where the bully has power over the individual being bullied. The power imbalance might come from social status (ex: manager and employee), physical attributes, or when there is a group versus an individual. When bullying happens between manager and subordinate, there can be fear of retaliation because of the power imbalance, which can prevent the target from coming forward with concerns. Conflict, on the other hand, happens on equal footing between parties with equal power.

Is it on purpose?

While intention is not the only criteria for determining whether an act constitutes bullying, it does factor in. If it’s obvious that the behaviour happens on purpose, and is intended to hurt, intimidate, degrade, threaten, or humiliate, it’s definitely bullying.

Is it a pattern?

Bullying is usually a pattern of behaviour that is ongoing. For the most part, it’s not something that happens once. Conflict, on the other hand, normally crops up only occasionally. It’s inevitable when you’re working in close proximity with others that at some point, they might say something you perceive as rude or mean. If it happens once, and there’s a resolution, it’s probably not bullying.

Is there interest in resolving?

In a bullying scenario, the bully typically has little interest in resolving the situation – they don’t see the need. They may show little remorse, and are often unwilling to take responsibility for the impacts of their actions. When normal conflict comes up at work, both parties are usually open to resolving the problem and restoring the relationship – they don’t want the situation to continue!

Your Engaged Assignment: Does your Bullying and Harassment Policy spell out a clear definition of what does (and does not) constitute bullying? If not, your (WorkSafe-required) annual policy review is the perfect time to work in an update to clarify.

Strapped for time but want to make sure you stay compliant? We’re always happy to help!