Ask anyone who has experience with bullying or discrimination at work: “How did it make you feel?”

You’re likely to get some version of the word “awful.” 

That’s because both bullying and discrimination are deeply hurtful. They break down your self-esteem. They make you feel isolated.

Every day, workers reach out to our text line (510-674-1414) to get support when they are struggling with toxic work environments. Negative comments, profanity, yelling, and other demeaning actions impact thousands of working Americans every day.

In 2017, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 61% of workers in the US had knowledge of abuse in their workplaces. Nearly 20% said they experienced bullying and another 20% saw it happen to others.

These kinds of workplace misbehaviors cause harm in many ways including serious adverse health effects. If you feel like you’re experiencing bullying and/or discrimination, first it’s important  to take care of yourself by making sure you’re safe and have someone to talk to.

Next, to help you determine the best way to address the issue, it can be helpful to identify the precise nature of what’s going on.

Below are some questions and answers that will help you navigate the potentially difficult situation you might be going through at work.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is when someone uses aggressive acts or comments meant to intimidate, humiliate, embarrass, or degrade someone (or a group of people). It’s often repetitive through ongoing actions or a pattern of behavior.

It can cause physical, psychological, and social harm. Some educational institutions have even identified “educational harm” (from bullying) that impedes students’ ability to learn.

The same logic can be applied to occupational harm in the workplace. If it hurts your ability to work in some way, it can be bullying.

It’s important to remember that bullying is not just a kids’ problem. Many adults face bullying in the workplace.

Here’s an example of workplace bullying from someone who connected with Empower Work: 

“A coworker repeatedly plays music loudly to torture other coworkers despite being asked not to but they know that it’s upsetting and challenging for folks.”

Unfortunately, Congress has yet to pass any federal anti-bullying legislation. Some US states have passed anti-bullying measures so it’s important to check your local laws. 

That said, if bullying becomes harassment (more on that later), it could break federal law.

If you feel like someone at work is using threats or other means to aggressively dominate you or others in a professional environment, that’s very likely bullying. Some examples might be:

  • Exclusion from professional activities
  • Verbal attacks
  • Isolation
  • Spreading rumors
  • Abusive criticism
  • Humiliation
  • Undermining your work

Bullying, despite not being technically illegal, creates a negative work environment and gets in the way of doing good work. If you are being bullied at work and are in need of support, you can always text us for free to talk to a trained peer counselor.

What is Discrimination?

If someone is targeting you at work because some key aspect of your identity, that’s probably discrimination.

The federal government has determined that there are certain “protected classes” and that people cannot be treated adversely based on their membership in those protected classes.

Protected classes include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and others. Any unfavorable treatment involving hiring, compensation, promotions, layoffs, benefits, training, and other areas can be considered discrimination.

Here’s an example of workplace discrimination

“My manager hasn’t given me a promotion in a few years despite great reviews that seem in line with our performance and promotion policy. Other men on the team have been promoted much sooner, but aren’t as strong performers. I was nervous to ask my boss about it. When I did, he said I was “too aggressive” and needed to work on how I “present myself”

This example seems like a fairly clear-cut instance of gender-based discrimination. Unfortunately, proving discrimination isn’t always easy.

When an employer intentionally discriminates against a person because of their membership in a protected class, that’s called disparate treatment

If an employer has a policy or practice that seems neutral but ultimately has an adverse impact on people in a protected class, that’s disparate impact.

Lastly, harassment is a form of discrimination that is legally actionable for the person experiencing it. Harassment includes misbehaviors like derogatory remarks, slurs, posting offensive symbols directed at specific groups, etc. This is considered illegal when:

  • It becomes frequent and serve such that a hostile work environment is created
  • It results in an adverse employment decision (e.g. firing, demotion, etc.)

As you can see, the big difference between bullying and discrimination is that there are many more clearly-defined behaviors and legal remedies for discrimination.

Whether bullying or discrimination, it’s normal to feel upset, hurt, frustrated and even depressed. The feelings are real and often similar, despite the precise definitions and how you can respond, or legal options, differing. If you are unsure about next steps or grappling with difficult emotions, you can text us at 510-674-1414 for free, confidential support.

Understanding the Differences between Bullying and Discrimination

Bullying refers to a pattern of behaviors with little to no legal prohibition. 

Discrimination tends to be very clearly defined workplace misbehaviors for which there are significant legal and procedural steps that can be taken to address it. Unfortunately, the burden of proving discrimination (and even bullying) still falls heavily on those experiencing it.

Companies should have policies against discrimination and may have policies against both. The key difference is often whether you can take legal action.

Whatever you decide to do – take action internally, take action externally by reporting, leave your job, or something – is ok. You should do what feels right for you.

As you consider options, get support from friends and close connections to help you process it all. Document what you’re going through at work thoroughly. For example, start a document or email thread with yourself recording every comment or incident so you can show a pattern of behavior. Evaluate your options, and talk with someone you trust. 

It’s angering that with as many advancements as we’ve made in workplaces, lots of people still face bullying and discrimination, and it’s never okay. What we know from helping thousands of people: you can get through this.

How Can Empower Work Help?

Our text line is free, confidential, and provides non-legal support for a variety of workplace challenges, including bullying and discrimination. We work with Empower’s trained peer counselors act as a sounding board to help you reflect on your current situation and brainstorm the best action steps for you to help you move forward. Here’s what to expect if you decide to text or chat online with an Empower Work peer counselor:

  • We listen. We ask what’s going on, how it’s impacting you, and what’s at stake.
  • We help you identify what you want. We help you look at your options, figure out what’s within your control, and get unstuck.
  • We make an action plan. We brainstorm next steps together and help you identify specific actions you can take.

If you’re ready to chat with a counselor, text us at 510-674-1414.

This post originally appeared on Empower Work’s website.