Long gone are the days where the word “bullying” conjured up images of a schoolyard kid stealing someone’s lunch money. These days, we think of threats sent on Twitter, prank videos gone wrong, and prejudice-based comments.

The History of Online Bullying

If you’re a parent of children that are Gen Z or younger, then you know that online bullying has been around long before Covid. The rise of the internet gave way to a new, easy way of bullying known as cyberbullying. 

Cyberbullying is running rampant online for two primary reasons:

  • Social media apps often provide anonymity, privacy, or both
  • The immediate consequences of face-to-face interactions aren’t felt

While anonymity is not as big of a factor in the workplace, privacy and lack of consequences definitely are. Unrecorded phone calls and unmonitored messaging systems can be a breeding ground for bullying, and harsh words or actions are easier to get away with when there are no physical bystanders to speak up. 

The Rise of Remote Workplace Bullying

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many workers to embrace the work-from-home lifestyle. When people were separated from their workplace environments, some held hope that incidents of harassment would drop; however, they would soon realize it was the exact opposite. 

A pre-pandemic 2020 study by an HR advisory body called The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 10% of workers reported being bullied virtually, either by email, phone, or social media.

The following year, The Workplace Bullying Institute conducted a survey in which 43% of participants (all of whom were US remote workers) said they had experienced workplace bullying, primarily through video calls and email. In July of 2022, the Employment Tribunal in the UK reported an all-time annual high number of bullying claims, an increase of 44% from 2021.

Some of the most frequently reported incidents included “cutting remarks during video calls, deliberately leaving colleagues out of remote meetings, and using messaging apps to gossip during colleagues’ presentations.”

Even worse, an April 2020 study by The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 29% of bullied targets had considered suicide and 16% had formed a plan.

These studies clearly indicate that, similar to how the internet gave way to cyberbullying, remote work has provided increased opportunities for workplace bullying. So the question is: what can we do?

Signs to Look For

Just like in many other ways, the remote workplace brings unique challenges to this arena. This is no longer a matter of stepping in between two colleagues shouting at each other or checking in on a coworker after their manager berated them in a meeting. 

Signs that remote bullying is taking place can be much more subtle, but they are not impossible to spot. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • People being left out. Whether it’s on emails or meetings, one particular coworker on a team being left out may be a sign of intentional sabotage. 
  • Smaller instances of harassment. Things like off-putting comments or slights can seem like a one-time thing, but they may be evidence of more serious, frequent behaviors.
  • Managers encouraging or leading bullying. A 2021 study by The Workplace Bullying Institute found that managers were responsible for 47% of reported bullying. If your leaders are showing wrong behaviors with no consequences, those under them will see that bullying is acceptable at your company.
  • Several employees leaving the same team. People change jobs for a myriad of reasons, but if multiple people from the same team have quit, it may warrant an investigation to learn why. 
  • Strange behaviors during virtual meetings. Is one person dominating the conversation? Did someone cut another person off repeatedly? Was there a jab at someone who couldn’t make the meeting? These signs and more could tell you that something worse is happening behind the scenes. 

Actions to Take

Now that your eyes are peeled for signs of bullying, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Here are four ways you can create a better environment at your company:

  • Review your reporting system. If you’re hearing people saying they don’t know how to file a report, there’s a problem. Every company should have a clear, easily accessible way to report harassment to HR. If you hear complaints that your system is confusing or difficult to use, provide training and consider updating it. 
  • Use a third-party consultant. If you’re in a leadership position, people in your workplace may be hesitant to tell you the truth out of fear of retaliation. A third-party consultant can come in and conduct anonymous surveys and interviews to understand the true environment of your company. 
  • Consider hiring an Ombuds. Their job is to help informally resolve conflict and provide a safe place for employees to express grievances. They may be able to spot trends in behavior throughout your organization and suggest changes for improvement. 
  • Invest in training. All employees should receive anti-bullying training along with your regular training requirements. Consider highlighting bystander and unconscious bias training this year.

It’s important to keep in mind that bullying doesn’t just affect the victim. Dr. Kara Ng, a presidential fellow in organizational psychology at the University of Manchester, notes that workplace bullying “really affects group morale. People may feel afraid to share their opinions, more stressed, and that can lead to lower performance and engagement that ultimately affects the company.” 

If your organization finds itself navigating workplace bullying or harassment claims, please feel free to contact Ablin Law by telephone (312.288.2012), text (773.230.4386), or email [email protected]

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