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 is bullying and what is not bullying, and this can often help understand what sometimes subtle differences can be. In this blog, we will help you to understand the difference between workplace conflict and workplace bullying and why it is some important that we educate our staff to know the definition of workplace bullying, what is bullying and what is not bullying behavior.


“Conflict is the mental struggle resulting from often incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands,” as per the Merriam Webster dictionary.

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

Workplace Bullying 

According to SafeWork NSW, Workplace bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour towards another person or group which creates 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 himself/herself.

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 behavior 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 Workplace Bullying Affects Your Work?

As per the Australian Human Rights Commission, workplace bullying can make your employees:

  • Less active or successful
  • Less confident in your work
  • Feel stressed, scared, anxious or depressed
  • Affect your life outside work, e.g. academics, relationships, etc.
  • Mentally ill and eventually physically ill
  • Mistrust the employer and management
  • Have physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches, sleep problems

Conflict Vs. Bullying

Here are the 11 distinctive points that will clear out the difference between conflict and bullying. You are most welcome to download the pdf and use it as a training resource or a discussion point within your team.

Conflict Vs. Bullying
Happens in front of you and/or othersOften happens in secrecy
Is mostly mild in natureNever mind in nature, any form of bullying has a harsh effect on the victim
It is mostly spontaneousIt is planned
The agenda is to solve an issue which is may or may not be personalThe agenda is only to harass and humiliate
Can happen between friends and supportive professional colleaguesDoes not happen between friends and supportive professional colleagues
If physical altercation happens, both parties are involvedThe bully is interested in a physical fight, the victim is not
The issue is worked out, in most casesThere is no issue to be solved, it is often fictitious or created to appease the ego of the bully
Is generally once-off, and does not happen repeatedlyHappens repeatedly and with malicious intent
No personal commentsPersonal comments are made
No one feels danger for physical or mental safetyPhysical and Mental harm is experienced and feared
General RemorseNo 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 behavior is happening within the workplace, that you are able to intervene as to prevent the damaging and long-lasting effects to the individual and the workplace culture of the entire organisation. Thus, companies should do what they can to avoid workplace bullying and if an incident arises, that it is treated seriously and in a timely manner

The two 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.
  • Carryout refresh training and roll out of your updated workplace policies.
  • Create an environment 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 on 1300 040 589 or email us at info@sentrient.com.au.