Today’s article is about how to prevent cyberbullying, and why it has risen in the remote workplace since the pandemic.
When workplaces moved to remote work in March 2020, some were wondering if physical separation from coworkers would lead to the end of workplace bullying. It turns out remote work made it easier for some to bully those who they perceived as vulnerable. That’s because the channels through which remote work occurs (text, phone, video) are often unmonitored, unrecorded or occur outside official company platforms.
Several years ago, I wrote about bullying at work. At the time, the issue was starting to be acknowledged by management. The American Bar Association defines bullying as “persistent, malicious, unwelcome, severe and pervasive mistreatment that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment.” Harassment is a legal term that hinges on protected categories. Often the terms harassment and bullying are used interchangeably. Although they represent different legal realities, harassment and bullying are both about mistreatment and toxic behaviors that negatively affect people at work.
According to Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying at work is like an “out of control epidemic.” I met Gary Namie at a conference in 2013. This was my first exposure to the concept of workplace bullying. I knew of bullying in school but I did not think it was a significant problem at work. This was until I heard the confession of a fellow HR professional who shared her experience of being bullied at work. This was an eye-opener. Remote work seems to have exacerbated the situation.
Knowing that no one’s watching can embolden bad behavior. In a traditional office, coworkers can be a source of protection. But working from home is lonely. There is no witness. The coworker who may overhear an inappropriate comment in the office is not present when the meeting call happens at home.
Complicating things is the increased informality of workplace communication. Emails and text messages are stripped of nonverbal cues. Employees feel as if traditional rules of polite behavior and professional communication do not apply. The inclusion of emojis to express emotion can be misunderstood. It can also be a not-so-subtle way to express negativity and exacerbate the impact of misconduct.
There is no longer separation between physical personal spaces and professional work. It is hard to escape a painful meeting overheard by a child or partner. Not to mention the stress and burnout experienced by many new digital workers. All of these factors provide a fertile ground for toxic behaviors with few guardrails.
Here are 5 tips to prevent cyberbullying in your remote workplaces:
Employers need to acknowledge the impact cyberbullying has on their remote workplace. It’s important to act now if only to avoid losing employees who are operating in a toxic remote workplace. In this article, we share a few pointers to help you safeguard your remote workplace from cyberbullying.
1. Expand your bullying prevention policy to include cyberbullying
Include an expansive definition of what bullying is and what it looks like in a virtual work context. The policy will not stop bad behaviors but it will provide a basis for action. Without standards about how to communicate or behave on remote platforms, it’s difficult to hold bad actors accountable.
2. Establishing a reporting procedure for cyberbullying
Many victims of bullying didn’t report before the pandemic. It’s much harder when virtual platforms are the primary means of connection. Clearly define the channels through which an employee can report misconduct. It’s also important to have a procedure to follow if a report of cyberbullying comes in. How can the company do forensic electronic work to capture communication? Retention policies for workplace emails and text messages on company phones provide a way to collect evidence, even if the reporting employee has not kept evidence of the misconduct.
3. Keep in touch with your staff
Knowing that many employees will not report, consider being proactive. Check-in privately with each employee while paying special attention to what new employees and minority employees might need.
4. Identify your investigative team for cyberbullying
HR and frontline supervisors are on the frontlines of the battle against cyberbullying. Good HR professionals know how to do interviews, talk to employees, and drill down into the details. Doing investigative work in a remote setting is challenging but not impossible. It is about really good HR: listening to what employees are saying and picking up on verbal cues. I have done a number of remote investigations. Contact me if you think you might need help.
5. Encourage employees to protect themselves from cyberbullying
It’s about documenting behavior when it happens. Over time, a narrative may emerge that speaks volumes about the experience of your vulnerable remote workers.