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Workplace Discrimination, Harassment, and Bullying: What’s the Difference?

November 30, 2022 General

Employees should be able to reasonably expect fair treatment and a work environment that promotes productivity. While the law does not guarantee these expectations will be met by employers, it does prohibit certain behaviors that are obviously inappropriate such as discrimination or harassment. Unfortunately, employees who are on the receiving end of such behavior are often confused as to their rights. 

To understand your rights and whether you have a claim, it is vital to understand the difference between discrimination, harassment, and bullying in the workplace. The best thing you can do if you are experiencing mistreatment or inappropriate behavior in the workplace is to contact a knowledgeable employment lawyer to discuss your options. 

Understanding Workplace Discrimination, Harassment, and Bullying

In order to have a clear sense of how they differ, it is important to understand what exactly constitutes discrimination, harassment, and bullying. 


Discrimination is the unfair treatment of a person based on the fact that they are a member of a protected class such as the following: 

  • Their race;
  • Their religion;
  • Their national origin;
  • Their age;
  • Their gender or gender identity;
  • Their sexual orientation; and
  • Their family or marital status

Discrimination against a member of a protected class is illegal under the law. Conversely, employees may be unfairly discriminated against if they are not a member of a protected class. 

In addition, discrimination does not need to be intentional. A workplace policy that creates a disparate impact on a group of employees can be deemed discriminatory even if that wasn’t the purpose of the policy. 

Lastly, discrimination does not need to be directed toward an individual employee – it can be directed toward a specific group of employees. 


Harassment occurs when there is unwanted conduct directed towards an employee based on their status as a member of a protected class. The conduct must be repeated and pervasive, creating a hostile, intimidating, or demeaning work environment that makes it difficult for you to do your job. Harassment can include the following types of conduct: 

  • Making derogatory comments; 
  • Telling inappropriate jokes;
  • Posting offensive cartoons or pictures;
  • Making lewd gestures; and
  • Unwanted physical contact

Sexual harassment is one of the more common types of workplace harassment, but any harassment that targets an employee’s characteristics as a member of a protected class is illegal. For example, constantly making racial slurs in the presence of an ethnic minority employee would be considered harassment. 


While we often associate bullying with something kids experience at school, the unfortunate reality is that bullying is also fairly common in the workplace. Bullying is a pattern of conduct that is directed toward an employee with the intent to intimidate, threaten, or humiliate them. It can negatively affect their mental and physical health and make it difficult for them to do their job properly. Bullying can include physical threats as well as verbal abuse. Due to the rise of social media, work-related bullying can also take place outside the work site. 

Discrimination, Harassment, and Bullying: How They Differ

Distinguishing these behaviors isn’t easy. One reason is that these terms are often used interchangeably. Another reason is that there is quite a bit of overlap – the same conduct can be considered discriminatory, as well as harassment or bullying. Understanding the key features of each form of conduct is key to being able to distinguish between them: 

  • Discrimination involves treating an employee differently based on their race, gender, religion, or similar characteristics that typically adversely affect their advancement, compensation, or access to other opportunities. Discrimination is illegal under both federal and California state law. 
  • Harassment typically involves inappropriate behavior that is based on an employee’s gender, race, age, or similar characteristics. Unlike discriminatory behavior, it does not necessarily need to adversely affect their pay, promotion, or similar opportunities – instead, the victim must demonstrate that the harassment created a hostile work environment. Harassment is illegal when it is targeted at someone who is a member of a protected class. 
  • Bullying involves any conduct that may be considered threatening, intimidating, or humiliating and does not need to be based on the victim’s membership in a protected class. Bullying is actually not illegal under either federal or California law. However, anti-discrimination or anti-harassment laws may apply if the victim is a member of a protected class. Bullying can often be difficult to distinguish from harassment in specific cases. 

Common Examples of Discrimination, Harassment, and Bullying in the Workplace

Reviewing some examples might also help clarify the difference between each of these types of conduct. 


Jocelyn is 50 years old and works as a file clerk in a corporate office. She wants to apply to be an executive-level assistant, a job which would pay significantly more than her current job and would give her better future employment opportunities. She is told that she can’t apply because she is too old, even though the job duties do not require applicants to be a certain age. The company has discriminated against Jocelyn based on her age. 


In addition to better pay, one of the reasons why Jocelyn wants a new job is that her immediate supervisor is constantly making jokes about her age to her coworkers. Every time she makes a mistake, he will say something like “maybe you were having a senior moment.” Despite the fact that she is visibly uncomfortable, he persists in making similar jokes and comments. Jocelyn’s supervisor has engaged in harassment. 


Jocelyn works with other women, who are constantly calling her “stupid,” “ugly,” and similar names. Their comments are not based on any protected class characteristics; they are simply hurtful and mean. Joecyln’s coworkers have engaged in bullying. 

Contact an Employment Lawyer Today if You Have Been Treated Unfairly at Work

Bullying, discrimination, or harassment can often be subtle and difficult to identify, let alone distinguish. If you believe that you have been treated unfairly at work, contact Attorneys for Employees – let’s talk about what’s going on and what we can do about it. Call us today at 310-601-1330 to schedule a confidential consultation.