Abusive Conduct & the Law

What are the differences and similarities between abusive conduct and harassment?

The biggest difference is that abusive conduct is legal in most of the U.S., and harassment is illegal. Harassment is about protected characteristics, and depending on what state you live in the characteristics are different. I live in California, the state with the longest list of protected categories, and if people are bullied because of their race, religion, gender, sex, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, disability, perceived disability, nationality, or a whole host of other reasons, then that behavior is against the law and the targets of that behavior have legal recourse – because they were bullied based on their protected category.

If a person is an equal-opportunity offender, and bullies a variety of people from a variety of categories, then it is not considered harassment and it is therefore legal.

Bullying and harassment often include relatively similar behaviors – both are about power over another person or group and both make the target feel small, stressed out, unhappy, and angry. But again, if the behavior is spanned out over a variety of people in a variety of categories then it is legal.

Here is a chart that highlights the similarities and difference between harassment and bullying:

Bullying v Harassment

What about intention?

In academics the issue of intention is widely debated. Some fervently believe that bullying or abusive conduct is intentional while others fervently believe bullying or abusive conduct is unintentional.

Currently there are four states that have a law about workplace bullying (the laws all refer to it as abusive conduct, but it is the same thing). Two of the laws require intention (Utah and California), one doesn’t mention it at all (Tennessee), and the fourth (Nevada) indicates bullying is illegal whether it “is intended to cause or actually causes harm.”

My personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter. Whether the behavior was intended or not doesn’t matter. If the behavior is causing one or more people to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, stressed out, and more, then it should be stopped. Period.