COVID-19 Stress + Remote Interactions = Increased Workplace Bullying

We know people can be much ruder via email, chat, and phone than they would be in person. Layer on pandemic levels of stress and what we’re seeing is an increase in online aggression and remote bullying between coworkers. Especially coming from those in power (bosses, white people, men, etc…)

Workplace bullying expert and employment lawyer Sejal Thakkar explains, “in today’s remote context, bullying is shifting forms: we now see folks belittling or shutting down colleagues in virtual meetings, interrupting them or putting them on mute, and/or sending threatening texts or instant messages.”

Bullying – remotely or otherwise – also takes in the form of what Thakkar categorizes as “withholding critical information (often a first step in actively sabotaging someone); exclusion (not inviting people to key meetings); and/or various forms of gossip and lies meant to control or demean others.”

To confront workplace bullying when it’s happening to you

When someone kind is acting rude – out of the blue:

As a quick remedy, I advise to name how the offending person is coming across. This simple method works if the person is generally kind and good, but is acting abnormally rude due to stress. (It doesn’t usually work if someone is a purposeful bully who doesn’t care that they’re being rude or that they are causing their colleagues stress and grief.)

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When someone is a repeatedly mean or playing toxic power games:

Colleagues and clients find success using the “Nonviolent Communication” format popularized in the 1960’s by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D where the affected person shares what the experience was like for them and makes a concrete request for different future treatment. Its purpose is to avoid escalating issues and to resolve them quickly.

The observe-feel-need-request format goes like this:

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Here are some real examples from current clients addressing bullying in the new [COVID-19] remote landscape through the Nonviolent Communications technique:

  • “When I see [myself get muted in a meeting], I feel [upset], because I need [to be able to share my thoughts in the meeting]. Would you be willing to [not mute me suddenly in meetings]?”
  • “When I see [texts in all caps with swearing], I feel [awful], because I need [to feel respected even in stressful times]. Would you be willing to [stop sending me all-caps texts or messages with swearwords]?”
  • “When I hear [jokes that my coding], I feel [bummed and misunderstood], because I need [constructive feedback not jokes]. Would you be able to [stop making jokes and start giving me feedback]?”

To confront workplace bullying as a company

Bullying- remote or IRL – is a company responsibility

To be sure, companies have a responsibility to end remote bullying at the systemic level. In other words, individuals who are bullied are not the ones who need to carry the onus for the solution.

Thakkar continues, “companies must create a safe, productive workplace for every member of the team – regardless of their location. The challenge is recognizing the signs that behavior is taking place remotely and facilitating steps to address it. It is important to have systems in place to promptly assess and identify bullying behavior and proactively address it.”

I advise to everyone to call it out directly, in the moment, and gracefully. If and only if they feel safe to do so. Companies should also ensure a confidential, safe way for employees to escalate bullying complaints to trustworthy allies in the company, such as managers who have been trained in bullying resolution or HR who have a good procedure in place for dealing with workplace bullies.

This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn, and was republished here with permission.