Bullying during a pandemic

Brooke Hall
June 17, 2020
Brooke Hall

In May this year, it was reported that “nearly half (46%) of all working Australians working from home in late April and early May”. If you are a HR manager, it might be tempting to wish that with such a large proportion of staff working remotely, instances of bullying might slow during these strange times.

Whilst physical distance from a bully can provide some respite from the behaviour, it is important to recognise the different forms bullying can take noting that that the more insidious varieties are hard to detect at the best of times, let alone when many employees not within the same workplace.

Thinking about the situations in which bullying type behaviour may occur when employees are working from home assists in working out how to best prevent it from occurring and the best approach to tackle it if it does.

Situations in which bullying behaviour might occur during a pandemic

Problem 1: Lack of face to face communication

It is easy to imagine how a lack of face to face communication might create an increasing number of situations where poor treatment is perceived. Written words don’t necessarily convey the intonation of our voices or our facial expressions and so messages are ripe for misinterpretation.

A simple reply like “great”, might be perceived as a pat on the back or, as a sarcastic dig. Without all the other cues that face to face communication provides, it’s up to the recipient to determine the intent.

In that context, and given a heavier reliance on email communication during the pandemic, people who are linguistically sloppy, drafting a quick ill thought out two-word response, might find themselves having conveyed a message they didn’t intend. Sometimes, bringing this to the sender’s attention is enough to change the behaviour.

Not so those who purposefully intend to do damage with the way they express themselves over email communications or by their actions, for example, ‘accidentally’ but unnecessarily, including others on emails containing feedback or negative commentary.

Problem 2: Our faces are too close?

After some 3 months attending Zoom calls I’ve curated the backdrop to my screen perfectly and worked out just where to place my chair so that my forehead doesn’t take up the whole of my screen when I’m video-conferencing. It’s important, because we see a lot of each other’s faces on Zoom or Google meets.

In fact, in our experience video-conferencing is perhaps more intense than a normal meeting as we are seeing up to 20 faces at once. In that context, it is inevitable that we notice participant reactions and movements more closely than we might if we were in a meeting at the office. For example, it’s difficult not to notice when someone ‘mutes’ you when you’re providing a response, mutes themselves and gets up and leaves the room, checks their phone, smirks, rolls their eyes or even yawns when you’re speaking.

Keeping in mind that it’s important to recognise that employees may be under various other pressures when working from home, repeated instance of impolite or rude behaviour of this kind, may be considered bullying.

Problem 3: Lack of oversight

Working amongst colleagues on site can provide protection for victims of bullying in that overt inappropriate behaviour is witnessed (and hopefully called out) by colleagues. In the same vein, it’s easy to see too, for example, when your colleague appears to be being unreasonably overworked by their manager.

When working from home however, there might not be others around to witness angry telephone calls, the volume of emails sent outside of work hours, the volume of tasks assigned or the reasonableness of deadlines set.

Tips for preventing and managing poor behaviour

1. Remind staff about policies

Prevention is always better than cure and, in that context, reminding staff about relevant workplace behaviour policies is an important first step. The fact that people are working in a more casual environment doesn’t negate the need for employees to act professionally and courteously in their dealings with each other, regardless of which medium they choose to communicate.

Policies are ineffectual though, unless they are communicated with staff, who are made aware of their avenues for complaint and are confident that their complaint will be actioned efficiently and appropriately.

2. Schedule interactions

This is easier said than done because, taking early action means that you need to be aware of the issue in the first place. When staff are working onsite, shared workspaces and facilities force us to interact with each other. It is possible however, to work from home however and not speak to a colleague all day.

At a practical level, this means that managers and supervisors must be intentional in their interactions with staff. Scheduling one-on-one catch ups with staff members during the week, via a phone call or video conference, is a must. Scheduling regular social catch-ups can also help to create a sense of normality.

At Worklogic, we still share a cup of tea every morning over Zoom. Attendance is optional, but it is a great opportunity to check in with colleagues and staff to understand everyone’s workload and check their general wellbeing.

3. Don’t ignore symptoms

If you do become aware of potential issues, do not ignore them. Taking action doesn’t have to mean undertaking a full scale (daunting) investigation. A great and simple initial step is listening. First, listening to understand the concerns and the impact of the alleged behaviour on the complainant and then listening to the other staff member to obtain their perspective.

These conversations might be difficult, however, in our experience addressing issues early is not only good practice, but generates confidence in HR and emphasises the importance of positive workplace culture amongst all employees.

About Brooke Hall

Brooke Hall has significant experience in the workplace relations area, having previously worked as a lawyer for 10 years at the now Fair Work Ombudsman. Brooke brings strong communication, investigative and analytical skills in the area of dispute resolution to Worklogic. Her strong client service focus and pragmatic approach ensures clients receive practical solutions to a range of workplace issues.

Worklogic has extensive experience in triaging and resolving workplace complaints.  If you would like advice on a workplace complaint, you can contact Brooke for an obligation-free discussion via email or by calling (03) 9981 6500.

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