Preventing all forms of bullying, harassment and mistreatment in the workplace should be an ongoing priority for any organisation that prides itself on creating a modern, supportive and inclusive culture. However, despite the best efforts of many HR professionals, it remains a perennial issue that can have a devastating impact on its victims and brings into question the value of compliance policies that should be there to protect people.
The problem is borderline ubiquitous, with a 2019 survey from Monster.com saying that around 90 per cent of respondents have “directly experienced” workplace bullying. The challenge of monitoring harassment has also taken on a new dimension over the past 12 months, with remote working adding a new dynamic to communication and culture. Indeed, the problem can be just as bad – and often worse – for people working remotely, and as a recent BBC article put it, “toxic workplace cultures follow you home”.
While organisations should have structured programs in place to address all forms of harassment at work, many don’t fully reflect the realities and scenarios at play in the contemporary workforce. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some employees to become complacent and less formal when they conduct business from their home, increasing the likelihood of harassment for individual victims and the compliance risk for the organisation as a whole.
Without doubt, the compliance process has also become more challenging for employers. For example, employees who could previously use the option of seeking out a manager or HR professional in the shared office environment immediately after an incident, may find it harder to report their concerns when home based. Part of the problem is that remote working requires additional steps to initiate a conversation or submit a complaint.
Remote working also reduces the likelihood that an employee reporting an incident will be supported by witnesses, while the use of personal devices makes monitoring of communications a bigger challenge.
So, how can harassment and bullying manifest itself between workers who are only connected remotely and what are the behaviours that HR teams need to be aware of? As with all forms of harassment or mistreatment, the experiences of victims range from obvious to extremely subtle. For instance, threats made via email or instant messaging or digital communications that feature racist, gender-biased, or other offensive material are often the most blatant ways for one employee to try and influence, offend or inflict distress on another.
But equally, spreading rumours about a colleague, purposefully keeping them out of the loop on a project that should include them or interrupting someone’s efforts to contribute to an online discussion can form part of a very damaging pattern of mistreatment. Another challenge for responsible employers is that the variety of today’s digital communication tools opens up numerous opportunities for mistreatment to take place relatively out of sight, with instant messaging being an important example.
Minimising Digital Mistreatment In The Remote Workplace
The changing work environment means that HR teams need to adapt their approach, policies and employee communications to ensure mitigation and protection processes are fit for purpose. The first step is to help ensure employees can adapt to remote work environments. Even after many months away from the office, this remains relevant and advice can include encouraging employees to assess their surroundings for items that would be inappropriate to display at work, even when working from private spaces. They should also be reminded that they are still at work and should remain professional at all times, particularly when having conversations via informational channels such as social and messaging apps.
Employers should limit the use of unsecured communication channels among peers to minimise the risk of security breaches that can lead to information leakage and unwelcome situations such as “Zoom bombing”, when uninvited people are able to join online meetings, engaging in behaviour that can be extremely distressing.
Next, HR should be taking the time to clarify and update remote work policies, which should make it clear that harassment and mistreatment is illegal even when working remotely or when people are under the additional levels of stress seen over the past year. Policies should also include language that is relevant to remote work to ensure expectations are clear and not open to interpretation.
Employees should also be reminded about the ways in which they can anonymously report incidents of harassment, bullying or mistreatment. Everyone should have access to a safe and reliable process that enables them to confidentially share their concerns and have confidence that they will be taken seriously.
Training is also a key part of the compliance picture, and programmes should be updated to focus on remote working environments if employers are to remain compliant under workplace laws and regulations.
Focusing on employee wellbeing remains a top priority across organisations everywhere, and by renewing their commitment to defeating harassment and mistreatment, HR teams can ensure they offer the maximum level of protection to their colleagues working in the office and at home, while maintaining a strong focus on compliance.