Laura Martocci Ph.D.

You Can’t Sit With Us

The Emily Houser Hate Party

Is there a line between bullying and harassment?

Posted Apr 09, 2017

This week 18 year old Emily Houser reported her boss, a manager at a Chili’s franchise restaurant, for making unwanted sexual advances toward her for almost two years.
Chili’s headquarters responded to her complaint by transferring him. 
Her co-workers, however,  responded by throwing her a F*ck Emily Houser” partycomplete with a sheet cake expressing that sentiment.
Emily's picture of the "party" on instagram raised many eyebrows--and many questions

  • Is there a lesson in the ‘witnessing’ capacity of social media?  Was Emily able--or right to try to-- reclaim some dignity by sharing her story with hundreds of thousands? 
  •  Will there be consequences of crying ‘foul’ in cyberspace? (Perhaps she will find 'advantageous' to move out of town for a few years?)
  • Does the story might exemplify a contemporary ‘call to arms?’ Visibility swiftly changed Chili’s response to this incident, and an on-line petition calling for a week-long boycott of Chili’s may further help ensure that corporate headquarters will not, in the future, wait until an incident goes viral to investigate harassment claims.
  • What will the experts tell us about her co-workers response?  Why did they think such a vicious rejection of their colleague was an appropriate, funny,—even fitting –response?  (Is there more to the story than a young woman to getting an apparently well-liked, yet predatory, manager transferred?—or is their response so cruel we just want there to be more? i

Answers to these questions may further blur the line between being ‘bullied’ and being ‘harassed.’ 

Harassment is a term usually reserved for behavior that results from prejudicial biases (those people are terrorists and should be 'encouraged' to "return home’; women are subordinate and can be pressured into sex; fags need to be ‘straightened out.’)
Bullying, while it may be directed at individuals belonging to the same (ostracized) groups, is not thought to be as—well, serious.
Despite national campaigns against it, teen tribes will always be quick to identify those who ‘don’t fit in’—and those who they don’t want to fit in.  What we strive for is that such identifications of ‘otherness’ not lead to cruel behaviors. 
But be clear, this is not the same as saying  ‘Will not lead to harassment’

Though bullying may constitute harassment in our everyday use of the term, the legal definition is more circumscribed.

Tangible consequences ‘in the world’—loss of job, compromised ability to ‘consent,’ or physical trauma are actionable, while even well-documented psychic abuse has consequences that are ‘hard to measure’ and even harder to prosecute.
Hence, harassment is against  law,* while bullying is much more the purview of  local mandates and institutional policies.  That is, even though all 50 states have ‘bullying laws’ on the books, courts rely on harassment, stalking, and hate-crimes laws to prosecute it.
This clearly suggests that relatively arbitrary, subjective lines are all that differentiate harassment from bullying.  
And it is important that such a distinction of degree be made, and be kept in place.(People’s feelings get hurt—intentionally and unintentionally.  We have all acted like asses—gone along with the crowd, maybe even thrown a barb of our own, passed along gossip, even originated rumors…).

If we follow this logic, Emily’s boss committed the actionable offense—he harassed her, and should be held accountable.  Stalking and repeated sexual overtures / pressure on a subordinate in the workplace can be—and now are being--formally redressed.

However, the little hate-party her co-workers hosted (ostensibly to support their departing manager) may not even meet the formal definition of bullying.
If Emily was not routinely taunted and ridiculed  by her co-workers, then the party was a cruel incident, and response—moral response-- belongs to the community.
Moral offenses violate human dignity, and the disapproval of those who bear witness to the offense has often served as redress.
Emily's defamation is now being given recompense in the court of public opinion--cyberspace.
Her former co-workers have had a fierce spotlight turned on them, and tens of thousands have passed judgment on their behavior.

Sharing her story has shamed the shamers—our grandparents called it  ‘giving them a taste of their own medicine’ 
But whether large doses of social-media shame-medicine will be effective, or carry detrimental side-effects, remains to be seen.

 According to government websites:
Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”  

As for the charges it carries, they differ on the state and federal level, as well as from state to state.  Again, according to the same government site,
Harassment charges can range from misdemeanor to high level felony charges. In many states, people charged with harassment will receive a higher level charge if they have previously been convicted of harassment, of communicating a threat, or of a domestic violence offense.”

If and when bullying becomes enduring, offensive, and creates an “environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive” state laws—mostly enacted to address interference with the right to an education—require institutions to act.  For the most part, when bullying overlaps with harassment, stalking, and hate-crimes, these laws are used to prosecute offenders.