How to combat bullying in the virtual work environment

'Driven by social media, comments are being made that would otherwise not be said face to face'

How to combat bullying in the virtual work environment

With major changes to the workplace during the pandemic, tales of toxic work environments and mental health issues have also erupted.

A law firm in the U.K., for example, has found a substantial jump in allegations of workplace bullying lodged with the Employment Tribunal – from 581 to 835 in the past 12 months, for an increase of 44 per cent.

And it’s possible the virtual working environment is at least partly to blame, thanks to a whole different way of doing work.

The dynamics of meetings have changed, and while that doesn’t necessarily lead to major bullying claims, it’s “a component of the narrative,” says Ivor Adair, partner at Fox & Partners in London, U.K.

“The virtual environment is just not being managed well so there's a leadership issue and potentially also a technology issue.”

But if an employer turns a blind eye and doesn't address these issues, not only is that potentially an occupational safety violation, but employees will leave and go elsewhere, says Amanda Nash, a lawyer at McInnes Cooper in St. John’s.

“Post-pandemic has driven the ability of employees to stand up and demand more from their employers, and make complaints against their employers when they don't respond appropriately to issues in the workplace.”

Why the virtual world can be toxic

One reason why the virtual environment is prone to toxicity is there may be people who are more reflective and don’t speak up much in meetings, while those who are more garrulous dominate the conversation, says Adair.

“You get resentment building and potentially some conflict in terms of colleagues not getting on well because the meetings aren’t being managed well.”

It’s much easier to chair a meeting if everyone is sitting around the table instead of having 20 faces on a screen, he says.

“There’s something inherent in the virtual video world that’s a challenge. And it’s also particularly a challenge if you have some people in an office and some people on the video calls because you’ve got the hybrid situation. But I think we all know it’s often the groups who are together and hold court, and the groups online sometimes struggle to contribute to the meeting.

“We've seen that play out in terms of disengagement, and employees being unhappy/miserable as a result of those kinds of dynamics. So that, I think, is a small component sometimes of relationship breakdown in modern times.”

There are also more complicated issues going on, such as a “general coarsening of the way people are interacting with each other,” says Adair.

“Driven by social media and so on, some of that is bleeding into the workplace with perhaps comments being made in emails or WhatsApp messages that would otherwise not be said face to face.”

Some employees are also braver when they're behind a screen, in the comfort of their own home, says Nash.

“Some people are more willing to speak up or are maybe more likely to pass a snide remark or to express unpopular opinions in a virtual meeting, because they're not in the same room… there may be more open dialogue, for better or worse.”

And when you're having nonverbal communication, it can be misinterpreted, she says.

“Tone is hard in a professional email, you're not putting ‘LOL’ after you say something… Even though we may have a script of the conversation, there is a large piece missing and there's a possibility for unintended feelings of belittlement.

“It’s harder for employers or witnesses to read nonverbal cues and people's body language as to how people are receiving a certain situation.”

Combatting the toxicity

When it comes to preventing or responding to bullying in the virtual environment, employers cannot ignore any issues that they become aware of, even if it’s second hand, says Nash.

“You cannot sit back and wait any longer for someone to come to you and file a formal complaint, you can't just pretend it's not going on… once you know something's going on, you have a duty to act and if you don't meet that duty, that may be where you're found to have failed the employee.”

And managers and supervisors need to have more check-ins, more touchpoints with employees who are working virtually to ensure that things are going well, she says.

Read more: Too often, people are afraid to speak up about harassment or uncomfortable situations at work.

While it might be slightly cliché, it is also necessary to have a look at policies because very often they're not fit for purpose in a hybrid working environment, says Adair.

“[It’s about] the business rules, how are we all meant to engage in this new environment, they need to be clear. And then when it comes to identifying and solving a problem, the investigation side of things… [to avoid] just adopting old-fashioned behaviours to a new problem.”

On the investigation side, the virtual environment can prove more challenging, such as gathering evidence, he says.

“Some thought needs to go into how the investigation is going to be conducted, as people are in different places, and they’re not in the office; some thought has to go into whether the actual investigation hearing itself can be conducted fairly.”

Many workplace policies don't necessarily address the virtual work environment, and these need to be revised to address the fact that employees are going to continue to work virtually, says Nash.

“Training needs to be delivered virtually; it's no longer sufficient to have a copy of your harassment policy and lay one on the table in the lunchroom and think everyone has equal access to it. Your training materials and your policies and your mechanisms for recording or reporting incidents have to be available to all of your remote workforce.”

Just as an employer would do a risk assessment of its physical workplace, it should do the same for the virtual workspace, she says, “and ensure that your training addresses that and assure that your response mechanisms also address that to ensure that the virtual workers are not left out in a dark place where they are subjected to things and don't know where to turn.”

And as part of the training, make people aware of the differences with nonverbal communication, she says, “and that you have to be cautious of the tones of your emails as to how they will be received.”

When it comes to combatting toxicity, communication is an important consideration, in terms of the tools and the content.

That requires an appropriate style, in a different way, potentially testing new styles of leadership, says Adair.

“If it's done well and focused and people's concerns are attended to, it might head off some of these problems,” he says.

Employers should also think carefully about the business rules for communications, he says. That can mean a policy standardization approach, because otherwise, people end up doing their own thing, “and then with inconsistencies, you get problems.”

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