Workplace bullying has gone remote

When work and private life blend, work environments often get less formal, and professionalism can slip.

Workplace bullying has gone remote

Virtual misconduct is on the rise in remote work settings.

You may be working remote, but workplace bullying and harassment can still find you. While it’s logical to assume that instances of workplace hostility and harassment are way down because we’re not at the office, that’s not the case.

Nasty bosses and belittling colleagues can be virtual menaces. Hurtful, toxic work behaviour, including offensive language, exclusion, and threats by email, voicemail or social media, is poisoning remote work environments, and damaging work productivity and mental health.

“The norm of mandating adults to work from home has now created a battle zone with computers and apps being used as weapons,” says Denise Koster, a Toronto-based workplace violence and threat assessment specialist at Koster Consulting & Associates.

Feeling ganged up on

There is a forming of cliques in workplaces that did not exist pre-COVID-19, says Koster. “Allies are being created between those who are physically working on site and those who are working remotely. The lack of communication, the selective process of who receives certain information, and the sense of isolation is commonplace.”

Workplace bullying has long been a problem, and remote workers struggled prior to the pandemic. A 2017 study by Harvard Business Review found that 52% of 1153 polled remote workers felt they were being excluded from important decisions and felt harassed, mistreated and ganged up on by colleagues.

Canada's Policy on Harassment Prevention and Resolution defines harassment as improper conduct that is directed at and offensive to another person in the workplace—including at any event or location related to work.

A breeding ground for bad behaviour

Virtual misconduct is on the rise in remote work settings, says Joan Dunlop, a workplace investigations lead and partner at Cenera HR and Business Consulting in Calgary. When work and private life blend, work environments often get less formal, and professionalism can slip.

Throw in COVID exhaustion, job instability and stress, and you’ve got a breeding ground for bad behaviour. “Consequently, we see a rise in complaints of virtual harassment, discrimination and bias amongst remote teams,” she says.

Dunlop reports that the most common workplace complaints being reported by remote teams are:

  • Offensive or hostile language
  • Intimidation on messaging apps and text messages on personal phones
  • Gender harassment and racial intimidation
  • Exclusion from meetings and bullied over video calls
  • Inappropriate comments that belittle individuals, over the phone, by text message or by e-mail

Water cooler gossip has gone online

Some of the complaints are carryovers from what was going on in the workplace before COVID sent us all home, but others have a new feel, she says. “There is a feeling that workplace gossip is no longer around the water cooler but in the chat functions on all the on-line platforms.”

A common complaint is that employees are having side-conversations during on-line meetings—those remarks and slights come to light, accidentally through tech issues or on purpose by the bully or by others, she says. 

In addition, the tone of emails and other messaging can easily be misunderstood. “Work frustrations and overload seems to be leading to shortened, and often terse messages,” Dunlop says. “Apparently there are people using lots of SHOUTY capitals in their emails!”

The loudest dominate meetings

And since technology doesn’t allow for free-flowing conversation, employees are also feeling that they are more easily overlooked during meetings, Dunlop adds. “Those who speak fastest and loudest often dominate meetings and others come away feeling disrespected or dismissed altogether.”

Koster reports an increase in tensions amongst staff including who is “allowed” to work at home, and who is considered an “essential worker” in a specific workplace. “The terms favouritism and false accusations of ‘being paid while doing nothing’ in the comforts of your home are being used on a daily basis.”

Try to resolve the issue

From intimidating colleagues to exploding bosses, you can run but you can’t hide. So here’s what to do if you are on the receiving end of a bully:

Do not stay silent. Try to resolve the issue with the harasser if you feel that is safe for you, says Dunlop. “If you can, ask them to stop directing this behaviour at you. It’s okay to ask a trusted coworker to be there with you.” If you don’t feel comfortable or safe confronting the bully, go to the next step.

Take your complaint to HR

Check any existing policies and procedures to figure out the steps your workplace has outlined for reporting. “If there aren’t any, consider escalating the issue to your immediate manager or supervisor—unless, of course, he or she is the perpetrator,” recommends Dunlop.

Take your complaint to HR if your attempts to resolve it with the harasser fail, or if your manager or supervisor isn’t available or helpful, Dunlop advises. If you can, provide evidence such as screenshots, texts, messages and suggest witnesses.

Stand up for your co-worker

Bystanders need to become upstanders, Koster stresses. “Accountability for all attendees in a video meeting to not only behave professionally and call out inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour remains the same, despite the fact that the workplace landscape has changed.”

Reach out for support

Dunlop stresses to be sure to look after yourself—tell someone you trust (without compromising the privacy of others involved) about what’s happening and how it’s affecting you. If it’s an option, get information on how to access extended family supports through your employer.

You’ve got rights in the workplace, and that includes employers providing a psychologically safe work environment. “Management needs to deal with bullying and harassing behaviours immediately and as a priority and not allow the pandemic to be used as an excuse for bad behaviour,” Koster adds.

Don’t let bullying derail your career

Workplace bullying and harassment can take a toll on your health and well-being, leading to lower productivity, anxiety and depression. Don’t let it derail your career. Want some help taking the first step? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you get job alerts emailed right to your inbox, which cuts down on the amount of time you’d spend searching through ads. You can upload up to five versions of your CV—each tailored to the types of entry-level positions that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you.