The real effects of virtual bullying and harassment

Technology and work from home have moved workplace harassment to the virtual realm

The real effects of virtual bullying and harassment

Home is the safest place to be, so working from home must be safer than going to the physical workplace.

That may be the case in terms of physical health and safety, but it’s not necessarily true when it comes to safety from harassment and bullying. The rise of remote work and all the electronic tools that has come with it – email, instant messaging, videoconferencing, social media – means that that opportunities for bullies and harassers have simply moved from the physical workplace to the virtual world. And just as employers can be negatively affected by and face potential liability for physical workplace harassment, the same applies to virtual harassment.

Canadian HR Reporter recently reported on a study from the Alberta-based Workers’ Resource Centre that found 37 per cent of workers experience sexual harassment from online messaging and text messages, and a whopping 54 per cent have witnessed such harassment. It’s one study among several that reveal that virtual harassment and bullying is a problem.

It can be a bit confusing for employers, who may think that fewer employees coming into the workplace and interacting directly means less bullying and harassment. That idea is borne out by another survey that found more than half of employees who switched to remote work saw decreased bullying by co-workers. However, because virtual tools provide opportunities for bullying and harassment to change formats, it’s still a problem that can spell trouble – 46 per cent in that survey said things were the same or had gotten worse with remote work.

Toxic digital communication

A US survey a couple of years ago found that nearly four in 10 workers had experienced toxic communication in the virtual workplace, with video conference, instant messaging, and email being the most common methods.

Many employers are no doubt aware that virtual harassment is happening and many take it seriously. Another recent survey revealed that nearly nine out of 10 Canadian employers would fire an employee who made inappropriate posts online. However, the same survey found that only 18 per cent of Canadian companies have a formal social media policy.

If bullying or harassment in any form is still going on, an employer faces the risk of liability for allowing a poisoned workplace, discrimination, or failing to ensure a safe workplace for employees. And that liability can lead to expensive damage awards in wrongful dismissal or discrimination cases – not to mention potential non-legal harm to the employer’s reputation, retention rate, and productivity.

Given the nature of virtual harassment and bullying and the relative isolation of remote employees, it can be more difficult for the employer to address or even be aware of it. Adding to the challenge is that some of it can happen outside of work hours, if social media is involved or employees are using their electronic work tools while off-duty. However, it’s becoming increasingly accepted that employers can have jurisdiction over employee off-duty activities if the workplace or other employees are negatively affected.

Fighting virtual harassment and bullying

What can employers do to combat virtual harassment and bullying? Things like regular communication with employees to reinforce anti-harassment and bullying policies and encouraging employees who may be victims to stay in touch can help. As for dealing with bullies and harassers, the same applies to them as it would with direct harassers in the workplace – if the employer becomes aware of it, it should investigate thoroughly and determine an appropriate disciplinary response.

Virtual harassment and bullying can have severe effects on the victims, as we’ve seen in too many situations in the context of outside and inside the workplace, so it should be taken seriously. Even if it’s on a screen instead of face-to-face, it can make what should be a safe space at home very unsafe for remote employees.

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