Bullying and conflict in the workplace often appear similar. It is important to understand that they are both different. Recognising and understanding if it is a bullying situation or an unsuspecting conflict situation is important.

That is why it is important to educate staff on what bullying is. In this blog, we will look at the difference between workplace conflict and workplace bullying and why it is important that we educate our staff to understand the definition of workplace bullying behaviour.


The definition of conflict can be a clash of interests. The basis of conflict may vary, but it is always a part of society. The basis of conflict may be personal, racial, class, caste, political or international.

Conflict is a normal part of any relationship (work or home). Conflict arises from differences and occurs whenever people disagree over ideas, values, desires, etc.

Workplace Bullying

According to SafeWork NSW, Workplace bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour towards another person or group that creates a risk to health and safety. Workplace bullying is deliberate. A bully is aware of what they are doing. Bullying implies an imbalance in power or strength. The employee who is targeted has difficulty defending themselves.

When trying to determine which behaviour you are observing, keep in mind that not all disagreements or fights constitute bullying. Conflict is a normal part of life. Bullying is not. Your employees need to know that bullying is not acceptable workplace behaviour.

Bullying must always be documented and reported to the proper person in the company, usually someone in human resources or upper management. Unlike conflict, the bully is largely responsible for the situation and thus is responsible for any changes required.

However, every relationship and every case of conflict is different and quite often, what starts with conflict can become bullying for many and varied reasons. That is why it is so important to be able to identify bullying behaviour and that your organisation has clearly defined steps to report and resolve such matters. Worst case, if somebody thinks conflict is bullying, then at least HR can help them work through it for a positive outcome.

How does Workplace Bullying affect your Work?

Workplace bullying can have the following effects on your employees:

  • Less active or successful.
  • Less confident in their work.
  • Feelings of stress, fear, anxiety or depression.
  • Affect their life outside work, e.g. academics, relationships, etc.
  • Mentally ill and eventually physically ill.
  • Mistrust in their employer and management.
  • Have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, and sleep problems.

Conflict Vs. Bullying

Here are some points that will explain the difference between conflict and bullying.

Conflict Vs. Bullying
Conflict Bullying
Happens in front of you and/or others Often happens in secrecy
Is mostly mild in nature Not usually mild in nature, any form of bullying has a harsh effect on the victim.
It is mostly spontaneous It can be planned
The agenda is to solve an issue which may or may not be personal The agenda is only to harass and humiliate
If physical altercation happens, both parties are involved The bully is interested in a physical fight; the victim is not
It is generally once-off, and does not happen repeatedly It happens repeatedly and with malicious intent
No one feels danger for physical or mental safety Physical and Mental harm is experienced and feared
General Remorse No remorse, as a bully blames the victim

What can you, as an Employer or an HR manager, do about this?

The key point is to decrease workplace bullying, and in the event that bullying behaviour happens within the workplace, you are able to intervene to prevent the damaging and long-lasting effects. Therefore, companies should do what they can to avoid workplace bullying, and if an incident arises, they should treat it seriously and in a timely manner.

The most effective steps to create a workplace free of bullying and harassment:

  • Create and roll out effective workplace compliance policies and procedures.
  • Educate your employees, volunteers and contractors with online workplace compliance courses.
  • Carry out refresher training and roll out of your updated workplace policies.
  • Create an environment that is absent of victim shaming but rather one that is supportive and encourages people to stick up for what is right.

Employees should speak out when they see that there is bullying in the workplace, either to them directly or to another of their colleagues. Workplace bullying compliance training should be in place to help everyone better identify what is and what is not bullying behaviour.

It should also be highly noted that misconduct of employees can subject the employer to claims of vicarious liability that can cause them severe financial losses, along with other damages such as loss of stakeholder value, degradation of the brand, increased employee turnover and diminishing productivity.

Sentrient is the most sought-after workplace compliance SaaS-based company in Australia. Sentrient services include e-learning workplace compliance training courses, a workplace policy builder and an automated online workplace system for centralised control, consistency and real-time reporting across your organisation. For enquiries, call us at 1300 040 589 or email us at info@sentrient.com.au.