December 20, 2021

Virtual bullying & harassment – will cases rise?

Virtual bullying & harassment

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.

You might be interested to know there’s currently work being done to protect workers from sexual harassment, find out more here: What is the Statutory Code of Practice on Sexual harassment?

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.

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About the author

Judy Simpson

With 15 years’ Human Resources experience, Judy has a wealth of knowledge across a diverse range of industries. During her career, she has used her strong negotiation skills to bring many difficult and unpredictable situations to a speedy and positive conclusion. HR consultancy often means ‘thinking on your feet’ for a prompt and best-possible solution. As well as specialising in employee relations for SMEs, Judy’s experience includes Working Time Regulations, apprenticeships, National Minimum Wage, Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employees (TUPE), relocations, Learning & Development, Strategic Planning, and Change Management.

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