Toxic Behavior in Remote Work: How Employers Can Be Proactive in the Age of Virtual Bullying

Originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Oilcan.

Working from home should have liberated employees from bullying and harassment, but evidence points toward toxic workplace behaviors having moved to the internet. More than 44 percent of Americans say they’ve experienced online harassment, meaning that if you’re an employer, chances are you have people on staff who have been affected. Regardless of whether you’re a c-store operator with employees in house or a fuel distributor who’s only seen your staff’s faces over Zoom, harassment is a constant threat, and according to an article in Bloomberg, workplace surveillance vendors have seen an uptick in cyberbullying and virtual harassment.

Online Harassment Defined
Just as a coworker could make inappropriate remarks about someone’s clothing or exclude them from a meeting in the office, these practices take place online as well. Sexual harassment and discriminatory harassment based on race, gender, religion, age or disability can occur both on and offline, with most virtual interactions in the form of text messages, emails or even chatting platforms. And this is not an issue unique to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, luggage startup Away was in the center of a cyberbullying scandal revealing toxic workplace conditions set forth by executives on the popular communication platform Slack. Additionally, the article in Bloomberg noted that economic vulnerability and insecurity can be directly linked to harassment.

In the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, harassment cases increased dramatically to a two-decade high. The article suggests the pandemic may have the same effect on online harassment in two key ways. First, virtual communication provides a degree of anonymity that can embolden people to do or say things they wouldn’t do or say in person. Second, stressful conditions from the pandemic have led some professional relationships to break down.

Although anyone can be subjected to online harassment, women, BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) and members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately targeted. This behavior hurts productivity, damages mental and physical health, and can lead to high staff turnover, so as employers, it’s vital to think ahead.

Planning Ahead
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to eradicate harassment, but employers can be proactive by putting more effort into offering anti-harassment training and following up on complaints. In order to get started, first do a policy check.
• Confirm that your policy addresses illegal behavior.
• Ensure your policy addresses behavior that is harmful to workplace culture such as bullying, abusive or intimidating conduct.
• Verify your policies and reporting channels are still accessible by employees even when they are working remotely.

Leadership needs to acknowledge the harm, let staff know they are taking the issues seriously and expect managers and colleagues to do the same. By committing to supporting staff who are being abused online, employees can feel safe to come forward. Finalize these measures by amending existing policies relative to harassment and social media use, communicate them to the entire staff, and have them reinforced by managers or HR staff who respond to reports responsibly.

Finally, clearly lay out concrete steps for employees to follow in onboarding, employee handbooks and online, and encourage managers, HR, IT and social media staff to reinforce them.

As part of newly defined protocols, ensure that all employees are documenting online abuse to the best of their abilities. Virtual harassment is one of the easiest forms to document, with technology’s instant screenshots, and keeping a log is vital to hold alleged offenders accountable.

Developing an Internal Reporting System
Create a space where staff can safely and privately report any instances of harassment. This can be done as simply as creating a designated email address or Slack channel. Sometimes, employees who have experienced harassment in the past and have had their claims dismissed won’t feel comfortable disclosing an incident to their managers or HR staff. Put together a small task force to monitor and respond to reports. Those in charge of addressing harassment issues should also be documenting each complaint, which can help
identify patterns.

Anonymous reporting should also be offered. A 2018 report from Society for Human Resource Management revealed that anonymous hotlines accounted for 57 percent of misconduct reports. If a staff member comes forward, reach out and listen to their needs, and if done anonymously, address the issue head-on in full staff communications. This helps make employees feel safe to report incidents and increases transparency with your staff.

By addressing the issues, monitoring incidents and responding to staff, and having a widely communicated set of reporting processes, you can maintain the standard for handling workplace harassment both on and offline.


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