Workplace bullying will not necessarily disappear with the shift away from the physical office. It can take place in a whole host of environments and can have particularly damaging effects on victims if it operates virtually.
Further to anti-bullying week and the recent findings against Priti Patel, we take a closer look at how bullying can manifest in the virtual workplace and what you can do about it.
There has been a noticeable blurring of boundaries between home and office as many work remotely in light of the pandemic. While some reap the benefits of no longer having to commute, those experiencing bullying or harassment may feel even more isolated and like there is no escape from a distressing relationship with a manager or colleague.
The distress caused can be compounded even further by the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and the remote working environment. Even if unintentional, instructions or feedback can easily be miscommunicated over email and leave fellow colleagues feeling anxious, micromanaged or undervalued at work. Bullied employees may also feel less inclined to come forward against a backdrop of mass redundancies due to COVID-19 and the increased pressure on HR teams as a result.
Despite these turbulent times it is crucial that employers are aware of their reduced visibility over issues within their teams. They should seek to proactively engage with staff and encourage employees to come forward sooner rather than later if they are experiencing bullying behaviours.
Bullying can manifest in a huge variety of forms and can easily adapt to the virtual setting.
While the word ‘bullying’ is not defined in english employment law, the term ‘harassment’ is. Under section 26(1) of the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as unwanted conduct that ‘violates someone’s dignity or creates an intimidating degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them’.
Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their staff - including one without bullying and harassment. This responsibility does not change simply because employees are working from home.
Examples of bullying or harassment the remote workplace could include:
Crucially, it does not matter if the bullying is intentional, it is the effect of the behaviour on victims that counts.
The above list is by no means exhaustive and as technology advances (e.g. in video conferencing or instant message features) there will undoubtedly be new adapted forms of bullying which we should all be mindful of.
Even though it is not your responsibility, if you’re the victim of bullying it is likely that you will need to take the first step to get the help you need. It is completely up to you what course of action you take, whether it’s an informal conversation or more formal escalation.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you could call out the bully’s behaviour in the first instance, explaining to them how their behaviours make you feel e.g. “when you raise your voice it makes me uncomfortable”, or “I feel that the targets you have set me are unfair”. These types of statements show that you’re not accepting their behaviour and this may be enough of a wake up call without needing to proceed to more formal action.
You may however feel understandably uncomfortable approaching the bully directly. You could instead seek confidential advice from a HR representative, your line manager (or their line manager if need be), or even a trade union representative if you have one.
If available, you should always review your employer’s bullying and harassment policy to see what channels might be available to you. This can usually be found on a company’s intranet page and will include information about how to raise a formal grievance if you decide this is the most appropriate course of action.
If you raise a formal grievance, your employer will need to investigate the issues you’ve raised and respond appropriately in order to prevent the situation from escalating further. This will likely involve meetings to discuss the contents of your grievance and you may be asked to provide some evidence if available e.g. copies of emails.
If a finding is made against the bully, they could face a range of sanctions, from a formal written warning, to dismissal in the most serious of cases. HR could also ask the two of you to take part in workplace mediation with a third party mediator, or request that the bully attends specific training. In larger organisations, employers may also have enough flexibility to permanently move one of you to another team if the relationship between you has broken down completely.
If you feel unsatisfied with the outcome of a formal grievance investigation, you may feel that legal action is required. We summarise below some of the claims that may be available to you. This list is by no means exhaustive and you should always seek specialist advice tailored to your individual circumstances.