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Bullying and Harassment Persists Among Remote Workers

Denis Villasana, Compliance Learning Content Expert - Thomson Reuters

This year’s sudden increase in the number of employees working from home has had a dramatic impact. Firms have scrambled to get their employees the hardware and software they need to stay connected and be productive. Compliance departments have been under pressure to implement policies and procedures that help minimize the regulatory risks of a remote workforce. Managers and their teams have been forced to adapt their internal and external workflows when people cannot be in the same room. These steps – and many others – have been critical to meeting the recent and unprecedented challenges firms have faced.

Bullying and Harassment in a Remote Workforce

One challenge that may be less obvious, however, is ensuring that working remotely does not lead to a less respectful work environment. That employees are in different physical environments may lead a firm to believe that bullying and harassment are effectively controlled or, at least, that they present less of an immediate concern. But this is a false sense of security that can obscure abuse.

Indeed, it may be easier for some people to bully or harass someone from behind a computer keyboard than face to face. An abusive person may also feel more confident that he or she can get away with abuse outside of the earshot of other colleagues. Home may also feel like a more casual environment than a physical office, leading employees to let their guard down about what they say and do on email, messaging or video conference platforms.

Working from home may also amplify bullying or harassment’s impact on the victim. Leaving the office and heading home at the end of the workday may provide a victim with physical distance and a mental break from the bully’s or harassers words and conduct. But remote workforce arrangements blur the line between home and office. Remote working technology — including email, messaging and web conferencing – allows the mental and emotional abuse to projected into the victim’s home and personal life.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that remote employees appear to be work longer hours, with many reporting that they never really feel like they are “off the clock.” Results vary by country and industry, but – by tracking when remote employees log on, log off or use firm email or messaging software – studies have found that employees may work up to three hours more each day than their on-site counterparts. Though this may be the cause of some of the increased productivity of remote workforces, it also means employees are getting less time away to recharge and cope with the stress of the workday, which is of extreme concern where an employee is the victim of constant harassment or bullying.

Preventing Bullying and Harassment

Employees must understand that the firm’s zero-tolerance bullying and harassment policies apply with equal force to employees working from home. To help employees understand their rights – and to provide guidance to whistle-blowers – the policies should specifically address ways in which remote bullying or harassment might happen. Some examples include –

  • threats and humiliation via email or instant messaging tools
  • texts excessively criticizing a colleague’s work
  • emails and other messages containing racist, sexist or otherwise offensive material
  • disparaging social media posts about a colleague
  • demeaning or belittling during video calls
  • spreading damaging rumours about a colleague
  • repeated email or instant messaging requests for dates or other connections with a colleague

The firm should establish reporting channels that victims or whistle-blowers can use to report when they experience or see this abusive or inappropriate behaviour. The firm should also counter any scepticism that these channels are effective or that the firm will take any complaints seriously. One way to do that is to create a step-by-step procedure for handling complaints that assigns responsibility for each step to a specific person (or job title) and that sets deadlines by when the firm will resolve the complaint or, at minimum, report back to the employee. Of course, the firm must also zealously adhere to the procedures it develops. Unfair, inconsistent or untimely investigations and resolutions will make employees less likely to report if they or someone else is being victimized.

Managers should also adapt their management style to the realities of working from home. Remote employees often report feeling isolated from their team and their firm as a whole, which can discourage them from speaking up. Maintaining regular one-to-one contact with remote team members can help alleviate these concerns and give employees the chance to speak up if he or she is being bullied or harassed.

Finally, the firm should guard against the expansion of remote employee workdays beyond traditional business hours unless necessary. Not only is this important to prevent employee dissatisfaction and burnout, but it also ensures that any employee who may be suffering from a colleague’s abusive behaviour can disconnect from it long enough to approach the problem with a clear head. By meaningfully encouraging employees to take time for themselves, the firm also communicates that it is concerned about their well-being and that it will take their concerns seriously.

Compliance stakeholders must balance education with investment to better engage employees. By educating the business on the value of compliance, stakeholders can foster a culture in which employees understand and appreciate why they need to be compliant, and which will encourage investment in the tools and technology that makes compliance training all the more engaging.

With over 450 engaging and interactive online courses, Thomson Reuters Compliance Learning gives employees the tools they need to stay compliant within the ever-evolving world of regulatory change. Contact us to learn how we can help your company build a successful culture of compliance learn more here >.

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