April 30th, 2020

How to handle workplace bullying and harassment during the COVID-19 lockdown


There are plenty of benefits to remote working, but when it comes to the current pandemic situation, the time to iron out the wrinkles and ensure employees are fully supported isn’t always there. As you’d expect, countless employers are dealing with brand-new remote policies that have never been used before.

But one area where employees should always be supported in is the management, reduction and removal of bullying and harassment from their work environment. Whether they’re sat at a desk in the office or on the sofa at home, the same requirements ring true: employees should feel safe at work, and they shouldn’t be in a position where stressful circumstances are being made worse by the actions of their colleagues or leadership.

So, how can you identify and deal with bullying and harassment quickly and effectively in a remote working environment? While the methods may have changed, the toxicity of a harassment situation is still the same – and it’s a must to deal with these kinds of issues swiftly and effectively. Here are just a few of the ‘new’ kinds of bullying you need to keep an eye out for as a responsible employer.

Lack of inclusion and isolation

Jane works as an administrative assistant alongside a broader team in the company. John finds her annoying because she has to have her toddler with her on calls, and as such has decided to cut her out of all future meeting invites. He’s also chosen not to invite her to weekly team Zoom calls.

While it may be more difficult to forget to tell someone about a meeting in the office or fail to include someone in something that’s going on right under their noses, remote working is a whole different environment when it comes to the exclusion and isolation of employees. It’s all too easy for employees to target other staff members by refusing to communicate with them, failing to involve them in work-based required activities or simply leaving them out of opportunities for socialisation.

During an already isolating time, this kind of bullying can take its toll on excluded employees, and at the very least harm their work and mental health. This kind of bullying could also be considered highly discriminatory, particularly in the example provided above.

Cyberbullying through rumours and abuse

Melanie is disliked by Joan, and as such, Joan has spread a rumour that she’s sleeping with one of her managers. Joan and several others in the friendship group from work have a private chat, where they complain about Melanie. When Melanie attempts to email or communicate with anyone in the group, she’s told to ‘figure it out for herself’ or that she’s ‘sleeping her way to the top anyway’.

It may feel like cyberbullying is something relegated to tweens and teenagers, but online bullying between adults is more common than you might think. Typically, this kind of bullying can be anything from talking about another employee in private chats or even sharing photos through to actively abusing or displaying aggressive behaviour towards that individual. Hostile behaviour is nothing new for some workplaces, unfortunately. Still, a single toxic employee can quickly lead to the creation of an us vs them mentality, which is amplified in a digital environment.

Rumours are easy to spread and hard to investigate within instant messaging and email in comparison to within the walls of an office. While the above is an extreme example, these kinds of behaviours are insidious and can quickly spiral out of control, especially in the current kind of ‘bubble’ we’re living in.

Micromanagement and constant demands

Fred is currently working full time from home with his husband, Joe. They split time homeschooling their eight- and ten-year-olds, and as such can’t be at their laptops all day every day. Fred’s manager expects him to respond to emails within two minutes and complete more tasks than he would within a normal working day because she believes he should be in ‘work mode’ at all times since his laptop is there.

Alongside behaviour between same-level employees, it’s also important to watch out for the behaviour of management and leadership during enforced work from home periods. For some managers, micromanagement is their response to gaining control of a stressful situation. With many individuals forced to work in less than favourable circumstances, or even having to juggle childcare and work, these too-high standards and their manager’s constant need for ‘bums in seats’ at all times can lead to increased stress and feelings of harassment.

While managers often don’t consider this behaviour to be bullying, it can be under specific circumstances – and more now than ever before. It’s important to know that we aren’t currently operating under normal circumstances, and that simply being in your seat and answering emails doesn’t make you productive.

How can you handle bullying when working from home?

If any of the above sounds familiar, or you simply want to prevent issues before they occur, the best thing you can do is be vigilant and understanding. By understanding that we aren’t in a normal situation during COVID-19, and that employees simply can’t achieve exactly the same output they could in the workplace, you’re far better-placed to get a look at the bigger picture. Whether it’s sending out information about bullying, or helping managers to better support their employees, simply improving awareness is a good first step, as well as making clear what isn’t acceptable under any circumstances – even when working from home.

Read more about how you can effectively lead a remote team.