How to tackle remote bullying

The coronavirus crisis has brought new urgency to the issue of work-related ‘remote bullying’.

Couple holding their hands to the heads over a laptop

There are two distinct, but interrelated aspects to the problem:

A.    Bullying of remote-workers – Remote working itself, when poorly managed, has vulnerabilities to abuses of power

B.    Cyberbullying – Digital communications, now a workplace mainstay, can be misused to mediate cyberbullying.

It is important to recognise that, while the working environments and the media may be new, the issue of bullying is not.

Workers can expect to be protected from bullying by their employer, by the law, and of course by their trade union. Prospect has a wealth of experience and expertise in supporting members through bullying cases, which can be applied to remote bullying as well as face-to-face bullying.

You will find lots of information about the wider issue of bullying, including legal guidance, from our bullying and harassment pages.

A.   Bullying of remote workers

Well-designed and well-managed remote working arrangements should not increase the risk of workplace bullying. In fact, for some targets of bullying, remote working can be seen as a way to restore themselves to a safe and productive working life.

However, the ad hoc home working arrangements that have been a feature of the coronavirus crisis may highlight weaknesses in organisational culture, and exacerbate risk factors for bullying:

Individual factors

  • The bully’s need for power or control – people, and especially managers, may feel a loss of control, either from their personal circumstances or because they have not been equipped to work and/or manage remotely.
  • The bully’s lack of emotional intelligence – remote communications can exacerbate the problems that arise from poor interpersonal skills.

Organisational factors

  • Exaggerated power imbalances – workplace social networks provide critical counterbalance to formal and informal power dynamics. Remote workers may have limited access to those networks.
  • Workplace stressors – organisational change, such as the transition to remote working, is recognised as an antecedent of bullying. During the coronavirus crisis this has been compounded by other workplace stress factors such as job insecurity and safety concerns.
  • Permissiveness towards bullying – bullying of remote workers is often less visible, and therefore easier to ignore than face-to-face bullying, giving an impression of organisational tolerance. New systems of remote-worker surveillance and performance management may amount to employer-sanctioned bullying.

Home-working during a pandemic

The coronavirus crisis has led to many people home-working in less than ideal circumstances:

  • Staff and managers untrained and inexperienced in home-working
  • Rapid adoption of previously unfamiliar tools and processes
  • Sometimes inadequate accommodation and equipment
  • Childcare pressures due to school closures and reduced access to support networks

Prospect guidance notes ‘unrealistic or unreasonable demands’ as one example of workplace bullying.

We should expect managers to moderate their expectations of workers’ outputs, where they reasonably can, according to the pressures of the pandemic. Performance management processes, in particular, should be humane and flexible enough to take account of individual circumstances.

5 steps to tackle bullying of remote workers

  1. Centre remote workers in organisational communications strategies
  2. Include remote workers in professional activities and decision-making
  3. Facilitate social and organisational support networks
  4. Address negative cultural attitudes towards flexible workers
  5. Ensure performance management is both objective and humane

B.   Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is bullying that is mediated by digital technology, including digital communications.

As workplaces become more heavily reliant on digital platforms for everyday operations, including communications and management processes, work-related cyberbullying is on the increase.

Digital tools may simply offer existing bullies new modes for their misconduct. However, studies of cyberbullying have shown that there are, additionally, new traps for unintentional bullying, and the potential to disrupt some of the norms of face-to-face bullying:

Lack of non-verbal cues

Written communications, especially quick-fire emails and instant messages, often fail to convey the subtleties of meaning we put into our spoken, and especially our face-to-face communications through tone, body-language. This “cues tuned out phenomenon” can simulate or exacerbate the lack of interpersonal skills that is a key predictor of bullying.

Opportunities for anonymity

Certain digital platforms enable anonymity and secrecy that can be a barrier to tackling bullying or even just linking it to the workplace. Anonymity is also a source of power, unique to digital communications, which can be abused by bullies.

Intrusive nature

Digital communications and cyberbullying transgress work-life/private-life boundaries. This encroachment into workers’ home lives can give workplace bullies access to their targets’ private information. It also makes the bullying harder to leave behind at the end of the day, with obvious consequences for health and wellbeing.

Potential reach

Cyberbullying can be far-reaching in both audience and duration, whether viral posts to social media, or public release of private data. Repetition of the behaviour is one of the core concepts in understanding ‘face-to-face bullying’, but in the case of cyberbullying, if there is persistence of harm, even a single act may constitute bullying.

Disrupted power dynamics

Some of the preceding factors, such as the potential for anonymity and access to private information can modify or even completely overturn workplace power dynamics. A study of Swedish workplaces showed that managers were more likely than their subordinates to be subjected to work-related cyberbullying.

Negotiating cyberbullying

  • Organisations should join-up their bullying and harassment policies, social media guidance, and management standards and training.
  • Workers’ contractual and statutory rights apply to tech-mediated communications and management too. Union reps should tackle cases of bullying, including cyberbullying, according to the rules, not the tools.
  • Workers should be empowered to recognise and challenge the wide range of behaviours that constitute bullying and harassment. The union can help build awareness and collective responsibility for creating a respectful workplace culture.