If you thought workplace bullying would stop when many companies started working from home, you would be wrong – it’s just now taking a different and perhaps more insidious form. Whereas bullying can easily have been identified or flagged by co-workers in the office, remote bullying often takes place in private forums and is shielded from the view of others. At the same time, the consequences of bullying can be amplified in a remote environment. Remote workers are already at risk of feeling more isolated and being bullied on top of that can compound that feeling, gradually making an organization less and less inclusive.

To explore how companies can combat bullying in a remote world, I spoke with Janine Yancy, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a company that provides online resources to build healthy cultures.

Linda Devonish-Mills: Bullying at work is an ethical and leadership dilemma for anyone in a managerial role. What does workplace bullying often entail? What does this negative behavior create for those who experience it?

Janine Yancey: Bullying can take many forms. And just because people may no longer be in the office doesn’t mean bullying goes away. Remote bullying can be more subtle, but still as impactful. Take video chats for example. Coworkers can now make assumptions about one another’s quality of life that were previously unbeknownst to them. This is problematic for some, who were under the impression that they were on the same pay grade as someone on their team. But again, these observations do not make a workplace bully; it is the subsequent, backhanded comments that are the building blocks for the remote work bully. Saying “Oh that looks just like the couch I had in my first college apartment!” or “Your walls are so bare! You should put some art up!” might not only make that person uncomfortable in that moment, but on every video call they take from that spot thereafter. The same can go for comments in the opposite direction. “Oh, your house is beautiful! Who paid for all this? Certainly not on our salary!” Comments like these are tone-deaf, make people uncomfortable, and are ill-informed.

Every one of these negative interactions weighs on the person they are directed toward. And in a time when people are already weighed down with the stress and anxiety of their work and home worlds colliding, this subtle bullying adds insult to injury.

LM: Adults can and should report bullying in the workplace but may not have the resources or motivation to do so. Are companies doing enough in this virtual environment to propose or reinforce policies towards workplace bullying?

JY: There is no doubt in my mind that workplace culture has been negatively impacted by the virtual workplace. Our own data backs this up. Emtrain has been tracking employee sentiment in the workplace as part of our training program for the last year. We found that workplace culture took a hit in the months following the pandemic as businesses dealt with the confusion and logistics of adjusting to more people working from home, social distancing, and the stresses of the pandemic. The number of people who said their workplace culture is healthy dropped 8.9% in the months following the pandemic. And the number of people who said there were respectful relationships across varying age groups dropped 10%.

I think the “work from home bully” is partially to blame. This new normal leaves a lot of openings for forms of bullying that we have not seen before. It is also more challenging to spot bullying as a bystander because we are all working in our own bubbles, and office communications don’t happen in the cubicle next to yours. Bullying might happen in email threads, private video chats, and one-on-one messaging threads. We also don’t have the opportunity to gripe about a workplace bully over the water cooler, so bad behavior can pile up and the victim may not even know they are being bullied.

LM: Some employees may wrongfully perceive some styles of management as workplace bullying, and both parties need to know the difference. How can organizations properly establish what is and isn’t workplace bullying?

JY: This is a challenge as it’s very difficult to define what constitutes bullying. Companies often have a predetermined process for dealing with harassment at work, but bullying is another story. Legally speaking, harassment involves unwelcome, severe or pervasive, verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex, gender/gender identity, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information. Bullying is not tied to a legally protected characteristic but it is intended to cause harm to another person.    

There should definitely be specific provisions about workplace bullying in employer codes of conduct or employee handbooks, with illustrations since it’s a difficult behavior to define. Outline what the employer considers to be bullying and how people can report that type of conduct.  Finally, establishing clear norms of behavior on how people should treat each other with respect is the best way to avoid harassing or bullying behaviors.

LM: Based on your company’s recent report, 87% of employees feel empathy is a salient workplace skill, yet only 34% feel it is exhibited by management. How can managers virtually support their employees’ mental health?

JY: First, managers must be empowered and encouraged to start conversations about mental health with their coworkers. Make it clear that there is a common understanding of how mental health impacts day to day work, and that employees are encouraged to speak up when the mental strain becomes a challenge.

Next, employers should update their paid time off policies to be pandemic-friendly. Employees who work from home are less likely to take time off as they try  to prove that they’re on top of their workload. This comes out of the fear that managers may think they are not as productive as they once were. With all the pressures employees might be experiencing, taking some time off can help their mental and emotional well-being. HR/Leadership can add a COVID-19 or mental health care request to their PTO system.

Also, it’s important to increase communication and quick check-ins with remote workers. During a pandemic there is no such thing as over-communication, especially when it comes to big picture updates on how the company is faring, whether layoffs or furloughs may happen, and when offices may open back up. Ease your employees’ anxiety by being honest and transparent with what’s going on with the company.