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What is workplace bullying, and when is it illegal?

Workplace bullies are manipulators. They aim to control others on an emotional or physical level, usually through anxiety, in order to meet their own personal agenda.

Whether the workplace bully you deal with is your coworker or supervisor, learn more about how to recognize the signs of a bully -- and how to tell if the bullying has crossed the lines into something illegal.

You may be the victim of a workplace bully if you recognize any of the following behaviors:

-- You find yourself being purposefully ignored. The bully greets everyone by name in the morning but you. Everyone else is asked how he or she is progressing on a project and offered assistance.

-- You end up isolated from others. You're purposefully given work that keeps you out of contact with others. You aren't invited to meetings, work lunches or social gatherings with other employees.

-- Your work is purposefully disrupted or undermined. Changes in schedule or objective aren't communicated to you. You've had your responsibilities altered without adequate notice or justification.

-- You are criticized constantly. This could be done seriously or in a "joking" manner. If it is done under the guise of a joke, you are told you have no sense of humor if you don't laugh at the "joke."

-- You are unreasonably blamed for group failures and not given credit for any positive contributions.

-- You have been purposefully degraded in front of others, yelled at, physically intimidated or threatened with punishments like unfavorable assignments or demotions.

These are just some of the signs of bullying -- which, amazingly enough, aren't necessarily illegal. While bullying certainly feels like harassment, it only crosses the lines into an illegal act if you are a member of a protected class and the bullying is designed to discriminate against you based on your inclusion in that protected class.

For example, if you're African-American and your boss complains about your work and calls you "stupid," that's bullying, but not necessarily illegal. On the other hand, if he or she then makes a remark about how you must have gotten into college through an Affirmative Action admission, that's discrimination because it targets you based on race -- which is a protected class.

If you're the victim of a workplace bully and attempts at resolution have failed, talk to an attorney to see if you have a discrimination case.

Source: Workplace Bullying Institute, "Frequently Asked Questions," accessed May 24, 2017

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