Employers and HR managers will already be extremely busy dealing with pressing COVID-19 business matters.
Alongside this, the day-to-day work of HR professionals continues and prudent HR managers will be taking steps now to protect the business from employee issues resulting from the change in working practices.
Examples of cyber bullying might include frequent interruptions during virtual meetings, unkind emails and repeated and excessive emails from managers. Some employees may “hide behind their screens” and not uphold the usual standards expected of them.
Equally, the lines between work and home life are also increasingly blurred. Work socials have also moved from the pub to platforms such as Zoom and Skype. From the comfort of their living room or dining room table, there is a risk that employees forget that this is a work event, with appropriate standards of behaviour expected.
Already challenging colleagues and relationships are likely to be exacerbated by a lack of communication caused by working from home. With meetings and work conversations now taking place virtually, it can be easier than ever for employees to feel excluded and bullied. As employees become more physically isolated from each other, doubt and uncertainty may creep in. The actions of colleagues, and particularly line managers, may be more readily misinterpreted.
If team members have been furloughed, reporting lines may have changed, or there may be gaps in the usual reporting structure. Both can put strain on working relationships. As can variable workloads amongst team members, where some employees may feel others are favoured by management over them. It is important that these issues are picked up and addressed with relevant employees so that any concerns are dealt with sensitively and promptly.
If an employee feels excluded or otherwise bullied by colleagues, it does not matter whether that behaviour takes place electronically or in real time in the office. The risk to the business remains the same.
In fact, the business may arguably be at heightened risk because the evidence of the bullying treatment can be more readily available if it is carried out electronically rather than verbally whilst at the office. Although there is no specific legal definition of or prohibition on bullying, it can cause a breakdown in working relationships, damage productivity and culture and, where protected characteristics are at play, expose the business to discrimination claims.
Prudent HR managers are working hard to update policies to reflect the recent changes in working arrangements. These should expressly deal with the risk of cyber bullying, and should be amended to reflect the changing way technology is being used.
Anti-bullying or harassment policies, along with disciplinary and grievance policies, should build upon current references to bullying and make it clear that this includes cyber bullying. If the business has support services on offer, these should be highlighted to employees.
HR managers should also ensure that employees are aware of the conduct expected of them in these challenging times. Consider whether it is appropriate to implement training, particularly for those with management responsibilities.
It should be made clear to all employees that professional standards of behaviour are required whether the interaction takes place online or via smartphones, apps, video conferencing and, perhaps, via social media. Monitoring and data protection policies should also be reviewed to ensure that they address the change in working practices.
Finally, if a complaint is received, it should be handled sensitively, promptly and thoroughly. Investigations can and should still take place and due process followed. Investigators may not be able to meet witnesses in person, but video conferencing can be arranged.
HR professionals should be aware that it is potentially easier for these meetings to be covertly recorded than in a face to face meeting. The appointed investigator should ask at the outset for confirmation that this is not the case, unless it is intended for the meeting to be recorded.
These are undoubtedly challenging time for businesses, HR and staff. Taking steps to ensure that policies and training are up to date and fit for purpose is one way to minimise the risks to the business in future.
Kirsty Churm is a senior associate in Kingsley Napley’s employment practice