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The Rise Of Bullying And Harassment In Lockdown

HR Daily, 1 November 2021

Once upon a time, remote working was perceived as an escape from workplace politics, a day to avoid the crowded commute and a chance to focus on getting your work done autonomously – working how and where you want away from the distractions of office life. 

Working from home should offer a time of calm concentration, a chance to throw on comfortable clothing and work how you feel most effective doing so balanced with time to get other stuff done.  With most people now working from home, surely we should have seen a dramatic reduction in poor behaviours or harassment at work and toxic work culture? Unfortunately this just isn’t the reality. 

We have seen a clear trend of rising bullying and harassment complaints as we double down in this extended lockdown; and we’ve been called in to do more investigations and mediations for clients than in the previous 12 months.  So what is going on here?

Looked at from a social context, the behaviours people adopt when behind a screen and keyboard differ to their usual behaviour when face-to-face. You can witness this amplified tone in the comment sections of social media, or even personalities on TV speaking their mind without direct consequence.  People become emboldened to speak more pointedly as a keyboard warriors than if they were sitting across a table from another person taking non-verbal cues about the shifting dynamic.

These same attributes are translating in to remote working behaviours. It has become easier to project or display negative or inappropriate behaviour when you know you won’t be seeing the person in the break room, or around the office.  As a result we have seen a rise in cyber-bullying complaints related to inappropriate messages being sent on official and unofficial communication channels: and even a change in behaviour during virtual meetings with lower engagement and poorer ability (or opportunity) to communicate effectively.  Some people opt to just tune out on mute when a dominant speaker takes up all the zoom meeting bandwidth.

When people are at their most isolated, with no sense of certainty or outlet, they are also most vulnerable to mistreatment and misconduct. Poor work behaviour can cascade into unacceptable situations. This is often fuelled by the increased stress of working from home, misconstrued digital communication and the isolating human disconnection from team members and managers with who you could otherwise have an in the moment chat about what is going on.

Add to this heightened climate, the pressure of whatever is going on away from the screen (such as home schooling young children, living alone or with a difficult partner, a general sense of malaise and struggle to cope emotionally) and working from home has lost its gloss for many people. 

What can employers do?

The primary goal must always be prevention.  Managing the potential risk of bullying and harassment must form a part of any modern approach to work health and safety. This obligation on employers has not changed during lockdown and is not modified by the fact  people are working from home – it just got more complex to manage.  

The risk to employers recently got higher when in July the NSW Supreme Court held that harassment could be implicit and the unlawful behaviour could stem from “overtone, undertone, horseplay, a hint…”. Put this into the current lockdown context and you can see how the temperature is rising during remote work – not diminishing.

Our advice to all employers is to develop and share with everyone a guide on how to successfully work remotely with specific guidance on staying (respectfully) connected and supported, along with consciously balancing time to be disconnected from technology and news services. It is also important to make sure that employees know that they can always reach out to someone to talk if they feel uncomfortable about a situation. In our experience an immediate conversation with a trusted person can help prevent a more serious situation from arising.

Handling a bullying complaint with care + compliance

Resolving a bullying or harassment allegation isn’t as simple as talking to the parties and making a file note of discussions. The way in which the whole process is managed from start to end has deeper implications for employee retention, company culture, inclusivity, mental health, wellbeing and productivity levels. If the underlying causal factors are not identified and addressed meaningfully the first time, the complaint handling process itself can cause a ripple effect of repeated inappropriate behaviours and exponentially damages brand reputation, company culture and ultimately, revenue.

It’s important to understand that bullying is always surrounded by context. Real people and real emotions are involved, meaning you can’t simplify the (perceived) incident to its legal components. What makes any investigation hard is that the intention behind the action by one person, and the perception of that action by another don’t always line up – and it is exactly this nuance which is exacerbated in remote working conditions. These situations are only made more complex when they occur behind a screen and the degree to which technology can inhibit authentic positive communication and connectivity. 

We often see situations where a complaint has been investigated in such a way that it has actually caused the situation to deteriorate further by galvanising people into an adversarial and self-defence mindset.  However if the process is designed to be about seeking to understand and then rebuild relationships a positive outcome can be achieved for everyone.

Bullying and harassment complaints need to be given full attention, in order to resolve the situation and to stifle the possible continuation of the behaviour in the business. We often see businesses who minimise the issue to a ‘difference of opinion’ or informal complaint that doesn’t need further action, eventually get hit the hardest with the consequences for not addressing the behaviour initially. 

So if you do receive a bullying or harassment complaint our top 3 tips are:

  • Make sure you respond quickly and don’t minimise the complaint as being informal, emotional or just a personality clash; often where there’s smoke there’s fire as the saying goes;
  • Done well, the grievance handling process can be part of rebuilding and reinforcing a positive culture and relationships and a positive way forward. Done badly, unfortunately we often find work environments are even more toxic and adversarial than before the process started; and
  • If you don’t have appropriately trained resources internally, work with an independent specialist who can partner with you to rebuild positive new ways of working in a hybrid work environment, which is undeniably the way of the future. 

Now more than ever, it’s important to keep a pulse on upholding company culture and setting positive standards for your teams that are working from home, feeling isolated or feeling lost. To ensure teams aren’t experiencing these issues, we need to all be proactive and respond effectively, by ensuring a strategic approach to safeguarding employees and businesses. 

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