Three years after the start of the Pandemic, remote work has become permanent for 35% of the American workforce, while another 41% work on a hybrid schedule. 1 For employees who used to endure a dreaded office bully on a daily basis, the opportunity to work remotely may have felt like a reprieve from having to deal with microaggressions, bullying and other forms of harassment. Unfortunately, this kind of bad behavior persists in the remote workplace. An example of this behavior is being regularly singled out and reprimanded by a manager or colleague on a video call. This is humiliating and disheartening, whether it’s a private meeting or in front of others.
Harassment in online environments is often more subtle and difficult to identify than in traditional face-to-face work settings. In an email or phone call, we can’t observe the perpetrator’s body language and tone. Without those visual cues, the bullied worker may wonder if they are imagining their coworker’s offhand negative comments or digs. On a video call, a bully may roll their eyes or give an obviously fake smile when their target is speaking. This nonverbal communication can negatively impact everyone on the call, not just the victim of the abuse. Conversely, without those non-verbal indicators, it is also possible to ascribe negative meanings to what would otherwise have been dismissed in context. Body language is a two-way street, so managers have to be very aware of how their communications can be received.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, more than 43% of remote workers report they have been bullied: 35% stated the mistreatment happened in virtual meetings in front of others, and 15% reported the bullying occurred in a private virtual meeting with the abuser.2
Examples of bullying behavior, microaggressions or other forms of harassment in the remote workplace include:3,4
- Discounting or interrupting someone repeatedly during video meetings
- Negative comments on email
- Discounting someone’s input because of their gender or political affiliation
- Leaving someone out of key meetings
- Using messaging apps to gossip about someone during their online presentation
- Refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns
- Changing organizational passwords when another team member needs that data to complete their work
What is the solution to bullying in remote work situations?
If you notice something concerning, say something. Doing so can be even more of a challenge in an online context because there may not be corroborating witnesses, and the negative conduct may be subtle and difficult to pinpoint. However, ignoring the problem tends to exacerbate it over time. The bully may feel more empowered to continue their harassment in a virtual space. Therefore, it’s critical for you to report concerning behavior to your manager, another people leader, Human Resources, Security or your organization’s hotline.
Below are some strategies your organization could adopt to help employees feel comfortable about coming forward to report incidents of online bullying and other harassment:
- Communicate how victims can report the abuse and where they can get help
- Reinforce a culture of courtesy and respect
- Teach employees how to recognize the sometimes-subtle signs of online bullying, harassment and other negative behavior
- Establish anonymous hotlines or portals for colleagues to report concerning behavior or scenarios
- Don’t use punitive language or tactics
Remote work is here to stay, but abusers shouldn’t find protection in your organization’s virtual spaces. It’s important to treat online negative behavior the same as if it happened at the office. The bottom line is that team members need to share what’s going on, whether they are a victim of abuse or they have seen it happen to someone else.
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