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  • Retention, 
  • Safety Basics, 
  • WorkSafeBC

  February 6, 2017

Bullying vs. Conflict in the Workplace

Bullying and conflict can appear similar, but they are two distinct behaviours and should be responded to in different ways.

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4 min read

It is sometimes difficult to know the difference between bullying vs. conflict in the workplace, as initially they can appear similar. However, it is extremely important to understand and recognize that they are two distinct behaviours and should be responded to in different ways.

According to WorkSafeBC, bullying and harassment is defined as:

(a) includes any inappropriate conduct or comment by a person toward a worker that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause that worker to be humiliated or intimidated, but

(b) excludes any reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the place of employment.

Alternatively, the Merriam Webster dictionary says that “conflict is the mental struggle resulting from often incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.”

Simply put, conflict can be healthy – and even welcome – within the workplace, if managed well and resolved collaboratively. On the other hand, bullying should not be tolerated in any shape or form. However, it is important to be mindful that conflict, if unresolved or not dealt with properly and proactively, does have the potential to intensify and take the form of bullying. As such, it is the ultimate responsibility of a manager or business owner to ensure that all behaviours are addressed and resolved appropriately.

In such a role, you need to know the difference between the two scenarios: the co-workers who are involved in simple conflict situations and the more sinister behaviour of a bully. As a starting point, when trying to assess which behaviour you are observing, remember that not all disagreements or fights constitute bullying. You can then review the following material to determine if you are indeed dealing with conflict or actual bullying.


  • It is a normal, acceptable part of life and human interaction, and it is often unavoidable, given that we work with people who have different personalities, communication styles, backgrounds, etc.
  • Those involved have equal power in the workplace relationship. While interactions can get emotional or heated, power and attention are not the focus. They are simply differences of opinion.
  • Conflict often results from poor communication or the inability of co-workers to control their emotions.
  • Those involved normally will take responsibility for their point of view and what they are saying; they do not blame others.
  • Normally, conflict is isolated and happens only occasionally; it is not an ongoing situation that is emotionally or physically damaging to anyone involved.


  • It would not be considered “normal everyday” workplace behaviour.
  • Sometimes there is an imbalance of power between those involved in the situation (either obvious or subtle).
  • Usually bullying is a deliberate act with the intention to hurt, intimidate, threaten or insult another person; bullies want to have control over the other person.
  • It is often repeated behaviour with a purpose – possibly incidental – and poses a threat of emotional or physical harm.
  • A bully does not usually show an emotional reaction and may even get satisfaction from hurting the other person.
  • Bullies normally do not have any remorse for their actions and make no attempt to resolve situations – simply to harm.

Recognition is only the first step. As an employer you also have the obligation to address both conflict and bullying; however, the manner in which you do so will be decidedly different.

Conflict can often be resolved by the individuals involved, although this does not mean an employer should simply ignore the situation. Instead, be vigilant to ensure a final resolution takes place that those involved can live and work with. In the end, you may be required to help bring about a successful resolution if the parties cannot come to some kind of mutually agreeable way forward. Nevertheless, make sure that those involved understand the part they play, not only in the conflict itself but in its practical resolution. Ensuring that effective conflict resolution skills are part of your business’s training and development program will support not only you and your employees’ ability to recognize and resolve conflicts, but will also promote an understanding of the nature of conflict.

Bullying, on the other hand, must always be formally reported. Unlike conflict, bullying is not a “two-way street.” The bully is largely responsible for the situation and thus is responsible for any changes required. In cases of bullying, intervention is always required to guarantee not just the physical, emotional or psychological safety of the target, but also to legally safeguard your business. Bullies need to be told that their behaviour is not acceptable and will not be tolerated; appropriate investigative and disciplinary action, if required, will follow any such report. As well, the targets of the bullying require support and reassurance, understanding that they did not cause the bullying and are not to blame. All employees need to know that bullying is not acceptable workplace behaviour and that any suspected incidents must be reported to the appropriate supervisor/manager without retribution.

Formally and clearly defining what constitutes acceptable behaviour in your workplace will support the ability to differentiate between conflict and bullying in the workplace. Subsequently ensuring that unacceptable behaviour is dealt with appropriately and consistently will not only protect your business from possible legal consequences, but will also support a positive work culture and one that encourages employee retention.

go2HR is BC’s tourism and hospitality, human resources and health & safety association, driving strong workforces and safe workplaces that deliver world-class tourism and hospitality experiences in British Columbia. Follow us on LinkedIn or reach out to our team.

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