Today’s Workplace: Bullying & Harassment Persists Among Remote Workers

This year’s sudden increase in the number of employees working from home has had a dramatic impact.

Firms have scrambled to get their employees the hardware and software they need to stay connected and be productive. Compliance departments have been under pressure to implement policies and procedures that help minimize the regulatory risks of a remote workforce, and managers and their teams have been forced to adapt their internal and external workflows when people cannot be in the same room.

These steps — and many others — have been critical to meeting the recent and unprecedented challenges firms have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harassment in a remote workforce

One challenge that may be less obvious, however, is ensuring that working remotely does not lead to a less respectful work environment. The fact that employees are in different physical environments may lead a firm to believe that bullying and harassment are effectively controlled or, at least, that they present less of an immediate concern. But this is a false sense of security that can obscure abuse.

Indeed, it may be easier for some people to bully or harass someone from behind a computer keyboard than face to face. An abusive person may also feel more confident that he or she can get away with abuse outside of the earshot of other colleagues. Home may also feel like a more casual environment than a physical office, leading employees to let their guard down about what they say and do on email, instant messaging, or video conference platforms.

Working from home may also amplify the impact of bullying or harassment on the victim. Leaving the office and heading home at the end of the workday may provide a victim with physical distance and a mental break from the words and conduct of bullies and harassers; however, remote workforce arrangements can blur the line between home and office. Remote working technology — including email, messaging, and web conferencing — allows the mental and emotional abuse to be projected into the victim’s home and personal life.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that remote employees appear to be work longer hours, with many reporting that they never really feel like they are “off the clock.” Results vary by country and industry, but — by tracking when remote employees log on, log off, or use firm email or messaging software — studies have found that employees may work up to three hours more each day than their on-site counterparts.

Though this may be the cause of some of the increased productivity of remote workforces, it also means employees are getting less time away from work to recharge and cope with the stress of the workday, which is of extreme concern where an employee is the victim of constant harassment or bullying at work.

Preventing bullying & harassment

Employees must understand that a firm’s zero-tolerance bullying and harassment policies apply with equal force to employees when they’re working from home. To help employees understand their rights — and to provide guidance to whistleblowers — the policies should specifically address ways in which remote bullying or harassment might happen. Some examples include:

  • threats and humiliation via email or instant messaging tools;
  • texts excessively criticizing a colleague’s work;
  • emails and other messages containing racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive material;
  • disparaging social media posts about a colleague;
  • demeaning or belittling conversation during video calls;
  • spreading damaging rumors about a colleague; and
  • repeated email or instant messaging requests for dates or other connections with a colleague.

The firm should establish reporting channels that victims or whistleblowers can use when they experience or see this abusive or inappropriate behavior. The firm should also counter any skepticism that these channels are effective or that the firm will take any complaints seriously. One way to do that is to create a step-by-step procedure for handling complaints that assigns responsibility for each step to a specific person (or job title) and that sets deadlines by when the firm will resolve the complaint or, at minimum, report back to the employee. Of course, the firm must also zealously adhere to the procedures it develops. Unfair, inconsistent, or untimely investigations and resolutions will make employees less likely to report if they or someone else is being victimized.

Managers should also adapt their management style to the realities of working from home. Remote employees often say they feel isolated from their team and their firm as a whole, which can discourage them from speaking up. Maintaining regular one-to-one contact with remote team members can help alleviate these concerns and give employees the chance to speak up if he or she is being bullied or harassed.

Finally, the firm should guard against the expansion of remote employee workdays beyond traditional business hours unless necessary. Not only is this important to prevent employee dissatisfaction and burnout, but it also ensures that any employee who may be suffering from a colleague’s abusive behavior can disconnect from it long enough to approach the problem with a clear head.

By meaningfully encouraging employees to take time for themselves, the firm also communicates that it is concerned about their well-being and that it will take any bullying or harassment that arises seriously.

The author of this article is Dennis Villasana, Compliance Learning Content Expert at Thomson Reuters. Dennis’ article was originally published in Legal Executive Institute, the Thomson Reuters thought leadership forum.

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