Virtual bullying & harassment – will cases rise?
The vast majority of employees are working from home again. Will this see cases of bullying and harassment continue or diminish? And how should HR deal with this?
With more employees working from home, we’d expect (and hope) that bullying and harassment claims become less prevalent. However, this doesn’t necessarily follow just because an employee is not physically in the workplace.
A virtual world of work
Video conferencing software such as Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are now the new way of working. Because of this, cases of bullying and harassment are just as likely to occur.
Early in 2021, the Chair of one of the top four financial institutions, KPMG, resigned from his position. This was on account of his behaviour during virtual team meetings. In particular, his “aggressive response to team members” who were struggling with the lockdown restrictions.
What is bullying and harassment?
Examples of bullying include offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. Something as simple as interrupting or ignoring someone during a call could cause offence.
Harassment is any unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
How can this happen virtually?
Let’s look at sexual harassment as an example. There’s a potential increase in claims now virtual working is becoming the norm.
By video conferencing, we’re inviting colleagues we once only saw in the workplace, into our homes. This is our private domain where there are no clear boundaries – much unlike the workplace. Without those boundaries, the usual standards of expected behaviour may become blurred. This could create a breeding ground for unwanted or unsolicited behaviours.
How do HR deal with this?
It would be advisable for HR teams to look at their policies, and review and update them to suit the circumstances of virtual and remote working. Without reviewing their policies and procedures, employers may find themselves unnecessarily exposed to claims from staff facing harassment.
In this new way of working, HR must continue to carry out their responsibilities as before, ensuring all cases of bullying and harassment are managed thoroughly. It may also be wise for HR to regularly check in with their colleagues, and offer the same, if not more support where needed.
Bullying and harassment is serious, and could potentially become worse in this new, virtual world. It’s important that HR and Employee Relations leaders adapt and make themselves aware of the potential new challenges they face when dealing with such sensitive matters.