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Tackling bullying and harassment issues in the remote workforce

Bullying and sexual harassment have become high areas of concern for organisations operating in every industry.

And while UK employers have a duty of care responsibility to do all that they can to protect staff from bullying or harassment, a quarter of UK employees think that bullying and harassment are more often than not ‘swept under the carpet’ by employers.

Back in early 2020, the CIPD issued a report that revealed how one in 10 employees had been bullied or harassed in the workplace. Shockingly, 40% of these victims said their manager had been responsible for the bullying/harassment, while 53% confirm they had not reported the latest incident they’d experienced.

Growing awareness of the issue has resulted in many organisations initiating policies designed to address all forms of harassment in the workplace. However, the mass adoption of remote working models in response to the impact of COVID-19 has added further complexity and risk. Because, despite being physically distanced, many forms of harassment and bullying can now take place virtually.

Indeed, it may be easier for some people to bully and harass someone from behind a keyboard rather than face to face.

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Harassment in the remote workforce  

Remote workers are vulnerable to a wide variety of cyberbullying behaviours, with perpetrators taking advantage of electronic communication modes to harass colleagues in their own homes.

Indeed, the shift to virtual working has seen an increase in the use of video conferencing and multi-media technologies that result in employees receiving inappropriate chat comments about how they are dressed or how they look.

Despite being physically distanced from others, workers are now vulnerable to threats made via email, instant messaging, or text, or receiving electronic communications that contain offensive materials.

Unfortunately, abusive individuals may feel more confident about getting away with abuse outside of the formal physical workplace, believing that what they do or so on email, instant messaging and video conference platforms is difficult to monitor or police. Relying on the fact that their victims will either not report incidents or will find it difficult to prove how the abuse is being perpetrated.


Addressing the challenge

Bullying and harassment is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as organisations adopt remote workforce and hybrid working models for the long term.

HR teams need to ensure that everyone understands the organisation’s zero-tolerance attitude to bullying and harassment and that everyone understands their rights with regard to reporting concerns.

Alongside meaningfully communicating how employees need to conduct themselves at all times, organisations will need to publicise the step-by-step process that whistle blowers can use if they experience or see abusive or inappropriate behaviour.

In terms of mitigating risk, there are three important steps that HR teams can take:

  • Clarify remote work policies – undertake a careful review of existing harassment policies, updating any language related to remote work to ensure the organisation’s expectations in relation to employee behaviours are well documented.
  • Reinforce anonymous reporting hotlines – encourage employees to report wrongdoing and ensure that every complaint is investigated in a timely and consistent manner.
  • Evaluate compliance training programmes and audit classes – to ensure these include coverage of remote work environments.

Finally, HR teams will need to ensure that every complaint is taken seriously, ensuring that all investigations are undertaken in a timely and consistent manner.

Harassment in the workplace isn’t a new issue. But remote working offers a fertile ground for perpetrators to indulge in abusive behaviours and go undetected. With remote workforce models set to become a long-term fixture, organisations must take action to prevent, detect and mitigate harassment the moment it occurs.

Andy Nickolls is director of compliance solutions EMEA at Skillsoft