Remote Bullying — Or How Remote Work Does Not Save You From Bullies

While the word “bullying” may come across as childish, it doesn’t change the fact that it has become an evolving issue in the workplace as remote work becomes the normal workplace set-up. There’s still a lot to understand about workplace bullying. Though there is growing global interest in workplace bullying for the last decades, researchers are still pushing for further studies to better understand the workplace phenomenon.  

One of the main aspects of workplace bullying that research is trying to uncover is identifying its magnitude and incidence. Fortunately, a study revealed that bullying and harassment at work is a widespread phenomenon that needs careful attention. This implies that HR and global mobility professionals should be on high alert. With lower employee retention levels and even higher attrition rates, any issue that might cause these worrying metrics should be taken into account and tackled with utmost urgency.

Workplace Bullying Institute released its 2021 WBI US Workplace Bullying Survey where the numbers demonstrated concerning data. According to the survey, 30% of working adults in America are bullied – that is an estimated 48.6 million workers – while 19% witnessed the event. Managers aren’t spared by this event. They actually comprise 40% of bullied workers. But how is bullying defined really?

The institution describes bullying as repeated mistreatment, abusive conduct, or work sabotage that humiliates, intimidates, or harms the target and interferes with their ability to work. Though a few organizations would argue that bullying can stem from the idea of “weeding out the weak,” there are zero benefits to bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

More and more workers now recognize that people are already fed up with toxic working environments. In fact, the MIT Sloan Management Review analyzed 34 million online employee profiles in the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics database plus 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews. The review discovered that the biggest predictor of employee attrition is toxic corporate culture scoring 10 times more than compensation.

Workplace bullying

Strategy+Business thinks that remote work has contributed to the rise of workplace bullying. Gary Namie, head of WBI, mentioned that even when remote work was termed telework, higher levels of aggression were observed.

Evidence shows that people are less likely to censor behaviors in digital spaces. Though this is most evident in anonymous online activity, the remote workplace set-up exhibits conditions that enable this effect such as asynchronous communication and the environment that makes cyber incivility easier. Moreover, the move to remote or hybrid work has affected the way managers handle their team members. Namie states “I feel supervisors and managers have a harder time justifying their roles…so they’re ratcheting up the aggression.” 

An account from an employee in Australia experiences this aggression firsthand from her direct manager. She explains that ever since her company shifted to remote work, her manager constantly bugs her inbox with emails asking her what she’s currently doing and requests her to list down every task she has done. To make matters worse, her manager insists on monitoring her Zoom meetings with clients which clients might find unusual.

It doesn’t end there. One time when she logged in at 9:15 a.m, her manager made it a point to give her a warning and sent a memo to the whole team demanding everyone to be online before 9 a.m. to start work. The employee argues that when work was still on-site, they typically started at 9:15 a.m. having a cup of coffee or just settling in. 

Good news for American workers

The good news for American workers is that they’re not putting up with this type of working environment anymore. It’s no wonder the Great Resignation occurred during the pandemic. The thrust for businesses to assure employees of a caring working environment is becoming increasingly evident. This also has probably something to do with younger adults who grew up with anti-bullying mindsets entering the workforce and are less likely to tolerate any form of mistreatment toward employees.

Even with today’s priority on employee experience, not all employers seem to get the message. According to a survey in the UK, only half of the British workforce felt their organizations considered reports and complaints about bullying a pressing issue. Furthermore, WBI reports that 63% of the employers’ responses to bullying complaints only aggravated the issue. If the workforce demands continue their course, employers who are unable to satisfy these demands may end up with unfilled roles. 

Whether businesses take this workplace phenomenon seriously or not, the issue will remain to be one of the drivers of talent attraction in the coming years. So, they have to constantly keep posted on the latest developments around the subject matter.