Will Remote Work End Workplace Bullying?

With much of the working world now doing their jobs from home, the realities of workplace bullying and harassment have been dramatically changed. Employees are now working from separate locations, communicating and collaborating through cloud workplace solutions, platforms like Slack and Zoom, and virtual meetings and video conferences. With employees so far away from each other, it’s natural to assume that workplace bullying has ended, but the truth is far more complicated.

While workplace bullying in its traditional form may be reduced in a remote setting, the truth is that workplace bullying can take place in any work environment. Remote employees may now face a completely different kind of workplace bullying, and leadership teams and HR departments are going to need to adapt quickly in order to identify problems and solve them as quickly as possible.

The realities of workplace bullying

Everybody can be a victim of workplace bullying, whether they’re working in a traditional office setting or reporting remotely. The definition may vary but there’s no denying that “highly charged, intimidating, [and] negative behavior” can occur in a remote environment. Workplace bullying often includes abusive conduct like verbal abuse, intimidation, humiliation, and sabotage, and in many cases abusive physical and sexual conduct towards an employee or employees. The bullies are often in a position of power or seeking to gain a position of power by targeting their peers or subordinates, repeatedly using toxic tactics to influence and manipulate colleagues.

Bullying in the workplace can have an extremely negative effect on employees, often leading to increased stress and related health problems that include anxiety, depression, insomnia, and digestive issues. All of these can greatly reduce an employee’s quality of life, in turn affecting both their work and home lives. Bullying can also lead to a decrease in morale and job satisfaction, creating a toxic environment that makes employees more reluctant to speak out, and creating an overall lack of motivation.

Not only can workplace bullying have an extremely negative effect on individuals and teams, but it can also be incredibly costly for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Because of its long lasting effects, workplace bullying has been known to cause employees to call in sick more often or take leave for stress-related reasons, which can lead to decreased productivity and much higher turnover rates due to reduced job satisfaction. In fact, in the UK alone, workplace bullying causes an estimated 18.9 million lost working days every single year, meaning that millions of dollars are lost each year to deal with bullying in the workplace. Not only does lost productivity and higher turnover cost your business time and money, but some employers have even been found liable for the bullying, leading to serious legal ramifications that can negatively affect your brand’s image.

Workplace bullying during COVID-19

Just because your employees aren’t working from the office, doesn’t mean workplace bullying can’t be taking place behind the scenes. Unfortunately, bullying and harassment are still evident in remote environments, and often much more difficult to detect.  Workplace bullies can target employees through communications tools, emails, and even during conference calls, all without you or your HR department being any the wiser - especially if victims feel like they can’t reach out to management with concerns about being bullied. When employees remain silent on the issue, workplace bullying can be nearly impossible to detect.

Working from home can also create a more relaxed environment for employees, encouraging them to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t in the workplace, which can lead to an increase in bullying and abusive behaviors. Even things like an employee rolling their eyes or making subtle comments when a victim speaks during a video conference can be looked at as bullying, and can have a major effect on employee confidence and morale. These more insidious methods of bullying can dissuade employees from taking part in conversations, affecting productivity and job satisfaction, effectively locking victims out of the team by further isolating them.

How your HR department can identify and reduce workplace bullying

The workplace should never be somewhere that bullying is tolerated - it hurts every aspect of your business, and can lead to serious personal, financial, and legal ramifications. In order to reduce the risk of workplace bullying, your management and HR department need to put policies in place that make it easy to respond to, report, and ultimately decrease bullying. Be on the lookout for employees who are no longer taking part in conferences and group conversations, as these people may be afraid of speaking out in front of their bullies.

Victims may also be suffering from a dip in productivity or quality of work, so it’s important to take note of employees whose work has recently started to suffer. Your business can use productivity intelligence platforms like Prodoscore to identify employees who are no longer working to their full potential, or to see which employees may have recently taken on more than they can chew - this can be a sign that workplace bullies have offloaded their work on another employee. Productivity intelligence can help your team proactively identify workplace bullying before victims have a chance to burn out, take leave due to stress, or leave the company outright.

Taking a clear and strong stance against workplace bullying is an important part of discouraging it. Communicate what employees should do if they feel that they’re being bullied, and what could happen to those who are identified as bullies - defining actions and consequences can go a long way in dissuading potential workplace bullies. You can also establish an internal task force in charge of creating anti-bullying policies, investigating claims of bullying, and documenting and reporting on it. An anti-bullying task force can help put an end to workplace bullying, establishing a more positive culture that keeps your employees happier and healthier, and the company out of legal hot water.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic and the remote work revolution put an end to workplace bullying? It’s not very likely, but with proactive measures put in place and the technology needed to know when employees are potentially being affected by workplace bullies, businesses around the world can greatly lessen the impact that bullying has on their employees, punish and root out bullies, and reduce the chances that bullies negatively affect your workplace culture.

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