What is the Difference Between Management and Harassment?

What is the Difference Between Management and Harassment?

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One of the most difficult areas for an investigator, much less a manager, to discern is when a situation escalates to the level of harassment.  What is the difference between management and harassment?  How can a manager have the right to manage without it being called a form of abuse? Normally harassment means that more than one event has taken place. Abuse that is repeated and intended to torment, undermine, frustrate or provoke a reaction is considered abuse.  It is the repetition itself, more than a single event, that creates the harassment.  For instance, John calls Jane ‘stupid’ for something she has done. If it was a one time only matter, it would not be considered harassment.  If, however, John kept calling Jane stupid all the time or constantly belittles her, it would be considered harassment.  By calling her stupid repeatedly, John is either tormenting or undermining her through the repeated insult.

 Can a Single Incident Be Considered Harassment?

Yes, a single incident can be considered harassment when it is shown to have a a severe, significant and lasting impact.  An example of this may be a direct threat of retaliation if a person does not do something.  For instance quid pro quo, which is a form of sexual harassment, takes place when a person in power expects sexual favors in return for special treatment.  That single incident would be considered sexual harassment.  Another example of a single incident being considered harassment is a threat of physical or psychological violence.  I’m going to kick your butt if you don’t do something would be considered harassment.

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What Constitutes Harassment

A useful guide to help understand harassment can be found from the Canadian government.  In order to claim harassment, all of the following conditions must be met:

  • A person displays improper and offensive conduct.  These include objectionable acts, comments or displays, acts of intimidation or threats, or inappropriate comments (i.e. racial taunts, etc.);
  • The behavior was directed at a specific person;
  • The conduct was intended or meant to offend or harm the individual.  This includes conduct intended to demean, belittle, humiliate or embarrass, intimate or threaten;
  • The person knew or reasonably ought to have known that such behavior would cause offence or harm;
  • The behavior occurred in the workplace or at any location or any event related to work.  This includes while on travel for business, at a conference, at  training activities/information sessions and at other work events, including social events; and
  • There was a series of incidents or one severe incident which had a lasting impact on the individual.

It is important to remember that in the case of sexual harassment, a single incident is more significant when the person accused has influence or power over the person making the accusation. This power includes career advancement, performance review, absenteeism, day to day management of activities, work assignments and ability to discipline the person.

What Does Not Constitute Harassment

Just as it is important to understand what constitutes harassment, it is also important to understand what does not constitute harassment.  Here is a partial list of some of the things that do not constitute harassment:

  • Management’s right to manage.  This means that management does have a right to manage such things as the day-to-day operations, work performance, absenteeism, delegation of tasks, reference checks, the application of discipline, up to and including termination.
  • Workplace conflict.  People argue and have differences.  Conflict alone does not equal harassment.  The catch here is that if no steps are taken to resolve the conflict, it could easily lead to harassment.
  • Work related stress.   Sometimes there is increased stressed at work and nerves may be frayed.  Although the accumulation of stress factors may increase the risk of harassment, a stressful work environment does not constitute a form of harassment.
  • Difficult conditions of employment.  Some jobs and  professions are by their nature difficult and may create conflict.  This is especially true during times of change when  a number of issues arise.
  • A social relationship welcomed by both individuals.  The key part of sexual harassment is that it is unwelcome attention by the complainant.  An office romance that goes bad does not constitute harassment unless it was done so under duress or threat.
  • Friendly gestures among co-workers such as a pat on the back.  In a number of cultures a kiss on the cheek is a form of greeting.  This in and of itself does not constitute harassment.

 Some Questions to Ask Yourself

Here are some good questions to ask yourself if you think you are being harassed (h/t Government of Canada):
  • What was the context in which the incident(s) took place?
  • Was the behavior improper?
  • Did the incident occur within the scope of the company policy?
  • Was the behavior directed at me?
  • Was this the first incident or is it a series of incidents?
  • What is my work relationship with this individual?
  • Was I offended by the behavior?
  • Are individuals doing or saying things to make me feel uncomfortable?
  • Would a reasonable person view this conduct as unwelcome or offensive? The behavior in question is not only assessed by the impact or effect on yourself, but against a reasonably objective standard.
  • Did the behavior exceed the reasonable and usual limits of interaction in the workplace? Would a reasonable person be offended or harmed by this conduct?
  • Are there other factors contributing to the situation (level of stress, workload, professional constraints, etc.)?
  • Am I being singled out and treated differently than my colleagues (i.e. being given the “silent treatment”)?


Other Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is the incident related to my work performance?
  • Am I being criticized regularly even though my standards have not changed and my performance has always been satisfactory or better?
  • What impact(s) and/or consequences did this incident(s) have on me?
    • Physically?
    • Emotionally?
    • Professionally?
  • Am I being blamed for mistakes that are not my fault?
  • Is this working relationship different from any I have previously experienced?
  • Are individuals putting me at risk in some way?
  • How would this behavior be perceived by other people?
  • Are there other factors in my life that could impact on my reaction to this event?
  • Is this usual behavior for the individual? Is there something personal or professional that is contributing to his/her behavior?
  • Have I spoken to the individual and tried to clarify the situation? Have I informed him/her of the impact the situation has had on me?
  • Have I asked him/her to stop the behavior?
  • Has the other person expressed regrets and stopped or has the behavior continued?
  • Have I considered resolving the situation through informal such as a facilitated discussion, coaching or mediation?
  • If I choose to file a complaint, will it be done in good faith?



It is important to remember that an allegation of harassment is a serious matter.  In order to properly assess the situation, you need to understand what harassment is and is not.  This will allow you to determine if you have fallen victim to it.

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