The rise of remote working spurs an increase in online bullying.

It’s a shame that we need the reminder, but workplace bullying and harassment has not gone away with rise of remote working. Actually, in some ways, the rise of virtual meetings has made the whole situation worse.

“Logically, those who engage in bullying and harassment are unlikely to stop doing so just because of these new working arrangements,” says attorney Paul Whinder of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “Indeed, the near universal adoption of video calling as part of everyday business communication across the globe will, if anything, provide fertile ground for not only a rise in bullying/harassment, but also significant challenges in catching and addressing it.”

The fact that one-on-one work interactions can now happen so privately may mean that the lack of normal societal checks on poor behavior results in a marked increase in these issues and their severity, he points out.

The reduced ability to have discrete face-to-face conversations with the human resources department and other colleagues means that unplanned conversations also have become much rarer. This also makes it possible that unwanted behaviors will go unchecked for a much longer period of time than before.

“The detrimental impact of such behavior may also be exacerbated for those who are feeling isolated, working from home and unable to confide in other colleagues,” Whinder stresses. “The home is arguably no longer the refuge it once was.”

In 2021, 30% of workers said they had direct experience being bullied (up 57% from 2017), according to an annual Zogby Analytics poll conducted on behalf of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). Men comprise the majority of bullies, 67%, and the slight majority of targets, 51%. Bullying remains primarily top-down, and 65% of bullies are bosses.

Forty-seven percent of the 1,215 adults surveyed said they currently work remotely, either entirely or in part. Of those, 43% reported having been bullied. The survey found that bullying during remote work happens most in virtual meetings, not via email. The researchers suggest this is because of fear of leaving a paper trail generated through email.

Half of respondents said they experienced or witnessed mistreatment during virtual meetings, and 70% said it happened publicly in front of others. The WBI researchers observed this is the equivalent of being berated at a group meeting in which the humiliation of the targeted employee is amplified, as it is done in front of an audience of fellow workers.

“Some of the findings from this survey suggest that organizations understand that a major negative consequence of increasing the amount of work done remotely is the likelihood of abusive conduct rising commensurately,” the WBI researchers said. “Employers cannot say they could not have anticipated the rise of workplace aggression. They should take steps to prevent and correct the inevitable occurrence.”

Employers Struggle to Maintain Control

Waiting until after online bullying has already manifested creates unique difficulties for employers that are trying to investigate it. Whinder says some of the difficulties that may arise include:

  • Complaints that potentially covering a far longer period of time as a consequence of unwanted conduct going unchecked.
  • Notwithstanding the advances in video technology, there is still no substitute for in-person meetings given the value of non-verbal communication. Workplace bullying investigation settings are no different.
  • Trying to arrange in-person meetings (if they are possible at all) may cause delays in the investigation, given the potential logistical challenges of arranging days when the relevant individuals are present in the office.
  • If investigations are conducted virtually then, it can create issues with the quality of the evidence obtained as well as preserving confidentiality given the lack of ability to control who is in the room.
  • Preventing employees from recording meetings has become an increasing challenge over recent years. Technology has improved, but in a remote setting it will be difficult to prevent.
  • As advances in technology continue, the potential for employees to create fake “evidence” such as edited video calls, social media extracts and audio recordings also increases.

Whinder recommends employers consider providing options that are clearly communicated to employees, such as raising a complaint with a manager or HR. He also advises employers discuss whether to have a confidential email or telephone hotline managed by a third party where complaints can be raised anonymously, as subject to local law.

Having senior executives, such as the global HR director, deliver policy communications that explain the company standards and encourage employees to report wrongdoings on behalf of themselves or others, can also be helpful, he says. “Addressing complaints in a timely and consistent manner will always be key.”

As companies formalize these new working arrangements, Whinder adds that they should be mindful of updating workplace policies and procedures to include examples of inappropriate behavior that occurs in remote settings (particularly video calls) and the standards expected by the employer. “Employers should also try to ensure that all employees have participated in workplace behavior training and keep a record of this,” he urges.

Employers can consult resources for drafting policies, such as the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM)’s  special model corporate policy on bullying and how to take precautions against online harassment in virtual workplaces.