Remote bullying and harassment is on the rise: what employers can do

This year, Pink Shirt Day (also known as Anti-Bullying Day) falls on Wednesday, February 22nd. Pink Shirt Day was initiated as a way for people of all ages to show their solidarity against bullying and harassment in schools and workplaces.

Over the years, we’ve posted many articles about pink shirt day, how it started, who the workplace bullies and their targets are, leadership accountability, and statistics.

We have also talked about the impact of the pandemic on harassment and bullying. As workplaces increasingly become more remote – partially or fully – our focus this year is on bullying and harassment in the remote/virtual workspace.

How common is bullying and harassment in the remote workspace?

While we may tend to think of bullying and harassment taking place face to face, in actuality, it occurs in all forums, venues, and methods of interaction. Western University’s 2022 National Survey on Harassment and Violence at Work in Canada showed that of 5,000 employees surveyed, over 71% experienced some form of harassment in the last two years. Of those incidents, nearly 27% occurred  online/virtually.

There are many other international statistics of online bullying and harassment. For example, in 2021, the US Workplace Bullying Institute found that of over 1,200 employees surveyed, 43% had experienced bullying within a remote channel, and 35% indicated that it occurred overtly on video calls when others were present. This survey also found that nearly half of remote bullying incidents were carried out by managers. Earlier research (conducted in 2017 by the Harvard Business Review) found that remote workers were also more likely to feel left out and/or gossiped about by their onsite colleagues.

Bullying and harassment challenges specific to the remote workspace

While bullying and harassment is unacceptable and harmful in any space, in a virtual/remote environment, it is often hidden and/or more subtle, and therefore can be much more insidious. There are also an increasing number of virtual/remote channels including email, messaging apps, text, video conferencing, social media, etc. Some of the bullying and harassment challenges more specific to the remote work environment include:

  • It’s not as visible and may not be as easily noticed by others.
  • It’s not as obvious when someone has been intentionally left out of a conversation thread or out of a meeting.
  • Without physical cues such as body language, tone of voice, etc., we often interpret words and messages differently in email, texts, and virtual messaging channels. Additionally, facial expressions can be more visible in a video meeting.
  • People tend to be more casual and less professional with one another.
  • Especially when non-business communication methods are used (e.g., texts), power imbalances are more likely to occur.
  • We don’t always see the follow-up if something inappropriate is done or said in a virtual space, and employees are often left wondering if their leaders are addressing it or condoning it. As noted by Dr. Kara Ng, Organisational Psychologist, when it’s visible, but not immediately addressed (e.g., in a virtual meeting), it moves beyond being an interaction between two people, and becomes a group issue. 

Perhaps most significantly, when an employee’s workspace is in their home (for many, in their primary living space) and bullying and harassment occurs in the realm of work, they’re unable to simply leave that space at the end of the day. As a result, they may end up feeling unsafe and re-experiencing trauma in their own homes.

How can employers prevent and address remote bullying and harassment?

Further to our previous post about bullying and harassment in general, employers need to be clear that it could/does happen, that it may well be happening in your workplace, and that it could be right under your nose. This is particularly the case in online environments, which, as DEI expert and founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting indicates, have become the “Wild West.”

As an employer who genuinely wants to support a safe, engaged, and productive workforce, you should:

  • Immediately address any bullying and/or harassment in your workplace, including anyone you’ve always made exceptions for (e.g., “oh, that’s just her style in meetings…” or “he doesn’t mean anything by rolling his eyes, just ignore it”).
  • Define with your leadership team how they and their teams are expected to show up in line with your principles of respect – including in a remote workspace.
  • Provide training for leaders/managers and hold yourself and them accountable; this should include what happens if/when something inappropriate occurs during a virtual meeting.
  • Ensure your guidelines related to working effectively in a remote space don’t unintentionally discriminate or provide justification for subtle (or not so subtle) comments about a specific circumstance or directed at a specific subset of employees (e.g., children occasionally being around during meetings).
  • Reconsider your position on requiring cameras on during virtual meetings (especially when workplaces are fully remote and employees don’t have another option); as Jennifer Brown notes, doing so may expose things they’re not ready/willing to have exposed (e.g. same sex partner, living with parents, etc.)
  • Listen to and check in with your employees regularly.  

Ultimately, it’s about leading the way and making the workplace – whether in person, remote, at a workplace event, or otherwise – safe for employees. As an employer, you have a responsibility to create a safe workplace, whatever the forum. Though not specifically related to virtual safety, we strongly encourage you and your leadership/management teams to watch Simon Sinek’s video on Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe. We assure you… it’s more than a nice to do.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can help you develop respectful workplace practices specific to working in an online, hybrid, or fully remote workplace.