When a written complaint of harassment is filed, a pre-assessment for whether the complaint meets the threshold to investigate must be conducted. When pre-assessing a harassment complaint for grounds, the prima facie test is instructive; specifically, if an allegation on its face falls under the definition of harassment and if the complaint offers persuasive evidence that harassment may have occurred, then the matter is actionable and a formal investigation may commence to test the evidence.

Sounds easy enough, right? If all pre-assessments were only that simple.

Conducting a pre-assessment can feel like visiting a hotel room after Led Zeppelin stayed – it can be messy with a lot of pieces strewn.

Accurately spotting alleged workplace bullying – which is a form of harassment – compared to workplace conflict can be a very specialized and complex undertaking. As such, this article is Part 1 of my two-part series on the art of pre-assessing harassment complaints.

A pre-assessment that is recklessly managed can pose numerous negative outcomes. A flawed pre-assessment can result in a failure to comply with legislation or a collective bargaining agreement, causing legal jeopardy and/or real harm to the affected employees. Similar to how a poorly conducted investigation can place an organization into a worse position than if no investigation was done, how organizations pre-assess harassment complaints can affect its reputation as much as the alleged conduct in question.

I’ve seen many improper pre-assessments and almost all are the result of well-intentioned pre-assessors who don’t have working knowledge for how workplace conflict and bullying differ.   

Many harassment complaints are filed by an individual who is embroiled in some form of a workplace dispute. These complainants are either correct in their assertion that they’re the target of a bully, or alternatively, their complaint is conflating a workplace conflict with bullying. To be sure, there can be real difficulty in distinguishing workplace conflict from the more destructive phenomenon of workplace bullying. This is because bullying ‘is’ a form of interpersonal conflict but in addition, has some very unique dynamics and characteristics.

When pre-assessing and triaging harassment complaints, the following six key characteristics of workplace bullying begin to set it further apart from workplace conflict:

1. Unidirectional & Repeated Escalations

On balance, bullying behavior moves in one direction (one-sided pattern) with repeated cumulative episodes. The bully typically initiates and continues to pursue the churn. The unwelcome collisions escalate over time in increasing frequency as the bully’s sphere of influence strengthens. Be mindful that workplace conflict and spiralling incivilities can also escalate over time, but normally those experiencing workplace conflict will try to avoid each other because the dispute is more mutual than not (two-sided pattern) and it’s uncomfortable for both.

2. Intense & Personal Attacks

Bullies often engage in very intimate, personal-orientated attacks on someone’s character that is irrelevant to work (i.e., appearance, name-calling, belittling, distortion, etc.). With bullying, the conflict’s foundation is the ‘person’ versus an ‘issue.’ Moreover, there’s commonly a high severity to the unwelcome behavior fueled by overwhelming feelings of dislike. Conversely, workplace conflict is typically grounded in workplace issues and is more often impersonal in nature.

3. Intentionality is Less Ambiguous

Bullies intentionally target a person in order to elicit strong emotion and reactions. The intention is to inflict harm by exploiting a known vulnerability or disregarding a target’s deservedness. Conversely, people experiencing a workplace conflict don’t have a daily strategy to render the other vulnerable, and in fact prefer to avoid confronting the other.  

4. Time Loss & Medical Assistance

Targets of bullying feel threatened and vulnerable. They have difficulty objecting are often unable to defend themselves against negative recurring actions. Their injuries are resistant to healing and they can suffer an identity threat. Overtime, targets can shut down and present with stress responses and real changes in health. Time loss at work and seeking medical assistance is more commonly seen with bullying versus workplace conflict.

5. Exploiting an Imbalance of Power

Perceived or real imbalances of power are often in play and brazenly exploited in a bullying dynamic versus workplace conflict.

6. Open Broadcasting

Bullies often openly broadcast their distain in order to increase their sphere of influence and attempt to manage their target’s reputation. Conversely, those in a workplace conflict tend to prefer to maintain some level of confidentiality because they’re not proud that a conflict is brewing and prefer a private resolve.


In summary, when pre-assessing a harassment complaint founded in bullying, it’s critical that pre-assessors appropriately triage complaints toward the proper intervention. When applying the prima facie test, accurately assessing whether a complaint falls under the definition of harassment often hinges on a robust understanding of the differences between workplace conflict and bullying. Inappropriately recommending mediation to address workplace bullying can re-victimize a target. On the contrary, investigating a workplace conflict as alleged harassment can further harden the relationship between the parties, be a misrepresentation of an employer’s legislated obligations and unnecessarily destabilize the work environment.

A robust knowledge of the differences between workplace conflict and bullying can go a long way to ensure that a complaint’s concerns are directed to the right mechanism to find the right solution.