The Difference Between School Bullying and Workplace Bullying

June 14, 2016
Younger hand holding an older person hand

I’m often asked about the difference between workplace bullying and school bullying. This is a fascinating question without simple answers.

Both types of psychological harassment share commonalities, but differ significantly in certain areas. In my view, both involve psychological violence. And whether it takes place at school or in the workplace, bullying can be devastating for targets.

One major difference lies in the area of definition.

School bullying is often clearly defined by policy or legislation. This is often not the case with workplace bullying. Some employers address the problem through internal policies and procedures. And while workplace bullying is addressed in law within some worldwide jurisdictions, school bullying is much more commonly addressed in law.

It’s difficult to specifically define workplace bullying unless the behavior is part of other legislatively protected areas such as harassment, discrimination, or intimidation. There is tremendous disagreement internationally among experts on a specific definition. However, they do indicate—and their research supports—agreement in three major areas:

  • Bullying occurs in the workplace related to discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.
  • Workplace bullying can also occur as a unique and distinct problem on its own.
  • Employees and organizations at all levels benefit from interactive, skill-based training in order to create and maintain workplaces that are respectful and both physically and emotionally safe.

In the simplest of terms, bullying can be defined as persistent and ongoing acts of incivility directed toward an individual or group. This definition works with both workplace and school bullying.

We consistently see that workplace bullying can thrive only within a workplace culture that tolerates it. In some organizations, a few people seem to maintain and even accumulate power when behaving disrespectfully. In some cases, habitual instigators seem to be held above reproach, despite their displays of disrespect for others.

Another major difference between these two types of harassment involves the fact that workplace bullying is frequently trivialized.

Often, workplace bullying targets don’t even recognize threatening and intimidating behavior as bullying until someone specifically identifies it. This may have also historically been the case with school bullying. Fortunately, school bullying receives more and more attention all the time. Both types of psychological harassment are very serious problems.

A significant difference between bullying at work and bullying at school lies in the area of motivation.

School bullies often harass others based on a target’s perceived weakness. Some examples of such perceived weakness include physical size or learning challenges, or even social status.

By contrast, workplace bullies often choose their targets based on perceived strength. A few examples of such perceived strength include physical skill, subject matter expertise, or even popularity.

In my mind, this unique difference actually boils down to the same thing:

Bullies harass others based on their own issues related to self-esteem and inadequacy.

In any case, both school and workplace bullying can result in devastating consequences for targets, schools, organizations, and the perpetrators themselves.


To learn how CPI's Verbal Intervention™ and Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® programs can help effectively reduce and address bullying in both the workplace and classroom, schedule a consultation today.

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