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Workplace bullying or harassment? Why the difference matters

Anyone who has faced mistreatment or abuse from a coworker or boss knows the lasting emotional harm that can result. If you think you're being bullied or harassed at work, it's a good idea to talk to your human resources department right away to try to improve the situation. But if the situation is getting bad enough that you're wondering about legal action, it's important to know the difference between bullying - which isn't usually illegal, except in rare extreme cases - and harassment, which can be illegal if it's on the basis of your membership in a protected class.

Sexual harassment is often the first type of harassment that comes to mind, but employees are also protected under federal law and the Missouri Human Rights Act from harassment based on race, religion, disability, age and other characteristics.

Bullying can affect anyone

Workplace bullying is more widely defined than workplace harassment and can include verbal abuse, threats, humiliation and sabotage. A 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that the majority (68 percent) of workplace bullying is same-gender.

Illegal harassment affects members of protected classes

Bullying behavior can constitute illegal harassment if a person appears to be abused or severely mistreated on the basis of their sex, race, religion, disability, age or membership in another protected class. Under both Missouri and federal law, illegal discrimination includes sexual harassment and harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and age (40 and older). The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets sex discrimination to also encompass discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Harassment is not only wrong - it's illegal

There's no doubt that both bullying and harassment are problematic behaviors that employers should take immediate action to address. But if you believe you're facing harassment at work because of membership in a protected class, you may want to consult a lawyer to determine whether you have legal recourse as well.

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