Distant threat: How bullying persists in remote work

When the bullying happens and a person is in their own living room, there can be a feeling that the sanctuary of their home has been infiltrated.

Victims of bullying are not safe merely because the office is unoccupied. Here’s how to adapt your HR policies to the evolving work environment and reduce incidences of troubling behaviour.

Remote working has posed numerous challenges for companies. Workplace bullying remains one of them, even though people are no longer face to face.

It’s too early for any official figures to emerge about remote or online bullying since the pandemic began, but employment lawyers and psychologists believe that bullying is just as prevalent, if not more so.

How remote working has led to an increase in bullying

Adam Doughman, senior associate at Keypoint Law, says remote working has, in many cases, led to an increase in bullying due to the ease of misunderstandings caused by behaviour and communication online. 

“We are seeing minor things getting blown out of all proportion. Email communication can be volatile at the best of times; the written word doesn’t convey nuance and you can’t use body language to convey meaning.”

Isolation and loneliness are also causing workers to act and react irrationally, says Doughman. The water-cooler chat, although it might seem like office gossip and unproductive, is quite important to people’s mental health

“The easy ability to talk to a colleague can be quite cathartic. But when you work at home and are feeling aggrieved about something, there is the opportunity to sit there and stew in your own juices,” he says. 

It has led to employees sometimes saying they are being bullied as a catch-all label for their anxiety and insecurity about their own roles and their place within an organisation. 

Many forms of bullying

None of this is to suggest that bullying is a mirage of the pandemic. Let’s not forget that in recent years the reporting of workplace bullying has been on the rise. Between 2011 and 2015, Safe Work Australia calculated a 40 per cent increase in reported incidences. 

Jessica Hickman, workplace culture expert and author of The Bullyologist: Breaking the Silence on Buylling, says she has seen an increase in the number of people reporting that they feel bullied while working at home.

“A lot of it is what I call ‘accidental bullying’, for example some managers overseeing remote teams for the first time will overcompensate by micromanaging, getting people on call several times a day which they never did when in the office.

“It’s particularly distracting if you are a high achiever used to autonomy and suddenly feeling you’re not trusted to do your job,” says Hickman.

Bullying can take many forms, both subtle and not so subtle. Hickman says remote working has been an opportunity for managers to exclude or marginalise some people – at a time when everyone is feeling insecure. 

“What we are seeing are sub-groups within organisations holding meetings and not including someone. Looking around a Zoom conference call, it becomes really apparent to everyone who hasn’t been invited.” 

The ‘home invasion’ factor

Clare Mann, a psychologist and communications trainer based in Sydney, says that remote working can also make cyberbullying much easier. An abusive person may also feel more confident that he or she can get away with it out of the earshot of other colleagues. 

The changed physical environment is also influencing behaviour, says Mann.

“If you put on a suit and go to an office, then there are clear markers of what is appropriate and what isn’t. Now with video conferencing, suddenly work colleagues are coming into our homes. Boundaries can be a little flimsier, and it may feel like work has become a more casual environment leading employees to let their guard down about what they say and do in email, instant messaging or video,” she says. 

For some it may be a green light to say inappropriate things about someone’s appearance or their lifestyle which can make people feel undermined and exposed, says Mann.

“When the bullying happens and a person is in their own living room, there can be a feeling that the sanctuary of their home has been infiltrated,” says Mann. At least, leaving the office allows you to switch off physically if not mentally from the bullying.

How do we prevent and respond to bullying in a remote workplace?

Adam Doughman: At our firm we now have virtual drinks one Friday a month. It’s a starting point and allows people to tune off work and tune into what their colleagues are doing. And you can’t be talking shop! If bullying is occurring, get on the front foot. Do not let it fester. All lines of communication need to be open. 

Jessica Hickman: Building capability, I advocate appointing peer-on-peer support and educating people at all levels of the business to recognise, acknowledge and respond to bullying behaviour. Also, strong leadership where there is an open-door policy and communication to staff on how they can get help is key, particularly when it is the manager who is the bully.

Clare Mann: Define what bullying looks like and set boundaries. Teach people assertive skills. Be clear that everyone has a responsibility to communicate in a way that is not misconstrued but [when that breaks down] put it on the table and acknowledge it. Without being too heavy-handed, be clear that if bullying is happening then it will be investigated and people will be supported.

December/January 2022
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