With more people working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, managers need to ensure that virtual employees maintain a respectful remote workplace. The casual nature of a home office environment can make it easier for people to bully or harass others and believe that their online behavior will go unnoticed by managers.
A 2021 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a US organization dedicated to the eradication of workplace bullying, found that more than 73 million US workers are affected by workplace bullying, and that 43% of remote workers have been bullied. The costs of bullying are many, impacting the physical and mental well-being of its targets, which can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and turnover, higher healthcare costs and litigation.
The US Department of Health and Human Services defines workplace bullying as unwelcome behavior that occurs repeatedly and is meant to harm someone who feels powerless to respond. It can include teasing, insults, threats, withholding work-related information, purposely leaving someone out of a meeting, sabotaging projects, blocking promotions, publicly reprimanding someone and requesting unnecessary work.
Harassment is an illegal form of discrimination that interferes with an individual’s job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Bullying crosses the line to become harassment when it is directed at individuals based on their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability and other characteristics protected under Title VII and state and local laws.
4 steps to stopping virtual incivility
Managers play a critical role in maintaining a respectful remote workplace and should take steps to discourage virtual incivility and address it quickly if it happens. By following these 4 steps, managers can create a safe and supportive virtual environment free of bullying and harassment.
- Be clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior
Ensure employees understand that an organization’s code of conduct and training, policies and practices to prevent discrimination and harassment and bullying apply in virtual environments. Remind staff to be aware of inappropriate messages visible on clothing, artwork, mugs and more during video calls that can contribute to an intimidating or offensive environment.
- Make it easy for employees to report complaints
Clearly explain the process of filing a bullying and harassment complaint at staff meetings, in the organization’s employee handbook and in ongoing communications. Emphasize that all complaints of misconduct will be taken seriously and create a complaint hotline and/or a dedicated email address that employees can use 24/7 to report bullying or harassment, wherever they work.
- Empower bystanders
Bystander intervention training is an effective way to empower remote employees to safely step in when they witness online misconduct. By learning different ways to interrupt or defuse situations, bystanders can help stop toxic behavior and show support and empathy to targets of bullying or harassment, even in a remote work environment.
- Promote a respectful remote workplace
Work culture has an enormous effect on employee behavior. By modeling respectful remote behavior in emails, calls, video sessions and one-on-one interactions, managers help foster a safe and supportive virtual environment for employees to express themselves without the fear of failure or retaliation.
When working remotely, employees can say or do things on email, instant messaging or video conferencing that they may not in the physical workplace. When these virtual exchanges take on an intimidating or offensive tone, the bad behavior becomes bullying and harassment. As organizations adapt policies, practices, training and communication to the new work world, the message should be clear that expectations for respectful, inclusive behavior apply in a remote or hybrid workplace.
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