The standard definition of bullying is, “repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees that creates a risk to their health and safety”. The uncertainty and constant change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has already led to the increased risk of the psychosocial drivers that can result in bullying – and particularly cyberbullying. Examples of cyberbullying might include frequent interruptions or ‘talking over’ a colleague during virtual meetings, unkind emails or repeated and excessive emails from managers.
“The uncertainty and constant change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has already led to the increased risk of the psychosocial drivers that can result in bullying…”
“With meetings and work conversations now taking place virtually, it is easier than ever for employees to feel excluded and bullied.”
Remote work amid the pressures of COVID increase the risk
With the COVID-19 lockdown increasing the number of employees that work from home, employers need to be aware of new and additional pressures that can be significant risk factors for workplace bullying. With meetings and work conversations now taking place virtually, it is easier than ever for employees to feel excluded and bullied. If an employee feels excluded or bullied by colleagues, it does not matter whether that behaviour takes place electronically or “face to face” in the office, though existing difficult relationships between colleagues are likely to be aggravated by the barrier to effective communication caused by working from home. As employees become more physically isolated from each other, doubt and uncertainty may creep in. Plus, the actions of colleagues, and particularly line managers, may be more readily misinterpreted.
The negative outcomes of cyberbullying
Although there is no specific legal definition of or prohibition with regard to cyberbullying, it can cause a breakdown in working relationships, damage productivity and culture and, where protected characteristics are at play, expose an organisation to discrimination claims.
Takeaway for employers
It is important that employers consider strategies to address the potential for cyberbullying in the remote workforce. This can include:
- actively fostering both an in-situ and remote work environment in which workers feel valued, psychologically safe, and healthy;
- making it clear to all employees that professional standards of behaviour are required whether the interaction takes place online or via smartphones, apps, video conferencing and social media;
“It is important that employers consider strategies to address the potential for cyberbullying in the remote workforce.”
- amending anti-bullying or harassment policies, along with disciplinary and grievance policies, that are built upon current references to bullying with clear reference to the fact that this includes cyberbullying;
- reviewing all monitoring and data protection policies to ensure that they address the change in working practices;
- monitoring the potential for employees to feel excluded where overt bullying in the physical workplace may now have adapted to be taking place covertly via digital means;
- consciously taking steps to reduce stress and ensure that all employees feel well-equipped to work from home and perform their duties with clear reporting structures in place;
- educating supervisors and managers to make senior leaders aware of online etiquettes and encourage them to set ground rules within their teams, such as avoiding unscheduled ad-hoc update calls or pulling members of the team into client updates at the last minute.
- respecting standing, pre-COVID flexible work arrangements where appropriate. For example: ensuring that employees who may have had flexible work arrangements, such as a day off to look after their children, maintain this arrangement while working from home;
- establishing clear boundaries and expectations so that employees are able to retain a balance between work and personal time while working from home.