At first, Joyce didn’t identify what was happening in her workplace as bullying. Her company had been largely remote for years, and she felt no physical threat from her colleagues. “I didn't really think about that,” says the communications worker based in east England. “I still had in my mind the traditional idea of bullying as somebody getting in your face.”
Yet over time a feeling grew that her boss, who was new to the company, was consistently singling her out in uncomfortable ways. “It would be a group email where I would say one thing and she'd come back with another, or she would put me on the spot in a Zoom meeting without any prior warning,” she says. Many incidents seemed small in isolation: one day her boss changed all of the work social media passwords so Joyce was no longer able to access the accounts; on another, Joyce got an email reprimanding her for “pushback” against her boss’ ideas.
The incidents piled up. Despite having worked at her company for years, over a period of six months, Joyce says she went from loving her job to wanting to resign. “It was a traumatic experience,” she says. “It played on my mind and I just felt very sad.”
Of course, bullying has long been an issue in workplaces, and encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviour, typically associated with in-person work. A familiar scenario might be a domineering boss publicly berating an employee to humiliate them, or a group of colleagues leaving the office for lunch together, deliberately leaving another behind.
For some employees, remote work has provided relief and distance from the everyday distress of dealing with such incidents. Yet there is also evidence that, as companies have increasingly switched to remote and hybrid models, workplace bullying has not only continued but thrived, often in more subtle ways – especially as technology has opened new avenues for unkind behaviour.
Remote bullying behaviour
Remote bullying is not an entirely new phenomenon. Some data indicates it was a burgeoning issue even before the widespread switch to remote work.
A January 2020 study from HR advisory body The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), showed 10% of workers reported being bullied by email, phone or social media. “We were already seeing incidences of bullying that happened outside the physical workplace,” says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser on employment relations for CIPD, based in London.
The expansion of remote bullying comes as little surprise to Suff. She believes the sheer number of digital channels available “gives more avenues for people to be bullied or feel on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour”.
New technology has opened up more channels for bullying, experts say (Credit: Getty)
Indeed, in many cases, these new avenues have been ground zero for bullying incidents in the pandemic era. A 2021 survey from The Workplace Bullying Institute showed 43% of 1,215 US remote workers reported they had been subject to workplace bullying, mostly via video calls and email. A quarter of all respondents concluded that remote working during Covid-19 made colleagues more likely to mistreat each other. In the UK in 2022, the number of bullying claims lodged in the Employment Tribunal reached an all-time annual high, increasing 44% on the previous year. The most reported incidents included cutting remarks during video calls, deliberately leaving colleagues out of remote meetings and using messaging apps to gossip during colleagues’ presentations.
In Joyce’s case, digital-collaboration tools helped facilitate some of the bullying she experienced from her boss. One evening after work hours, Joyce got a message asking if she could join a video call immediately. On the call, her boss asked her to open a new email which, to Joyce’s surprise, contained a formal written warning from her boss, which the boss then read aloud. “I just wanted to get off the call,” says Joyce. “Why did she have to do it quite so dramatically and watch my expression?”
As bad as Joyce felt, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s data suggests she was spared some humiliation, since only she and her boss were on the call. In their research, 35% of respondents said their remote bullying happened on video calls in front of others “in real time, with facial expressions made prominent by the technology”.
Remote bullying in front of colleagues can not only be humiliating, but can also intensify feelings of disconnect from the team as a whole. Face to face, colleagues might intervene to stop bullying by showing support to the target or disagreeing with the perpetrator, says Dr Kara Ng, presidential fellow in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, but in a virtual meeting it's more difficult. “Bystanders can’t use the same social cues.”
In fact, some remote colleagues might not even be aware there is a problem. “Bullying behaviours are less likely to be spotted in the digital workplace,” says Priyanka Sharma, organisational psychologist and founder of workplace learning consultancy Mindtrail, based in London. “It's much easier to intentionally exclude someone from important meetings or withhold important information, and it’s more difficult to pick up when a colleague is in distress.”
Bullying behaviours are less likely to be spotted in the digital workplace - Priyanka Sharma
Lack of intervention can leave the targeted worker feeling their teammates endorse bullying behaviour, even if that is not the case. And after an incident, remote workspaces offer less opportunity for informal chat with colleagues to discuss what happened. “Not having that ability to sense-make with someone socially and to understand group norms can be quite damaging,” Ng says. “You just end up feeling even more isolated.”
A rash that spreads
It’s possible the isolation of working remotely may also change the way workers interpret their colleagues’ behaviour, making them more likely to feel bullied. A 2017 study of 1,100 remote workers showed these employees were more likely to report that colleagues left them out, gossiped about them behind their backs and even lobbied against them with others when they were working from home. They also said when conflict arose among colleagues, working remotely made it harder to resolve.
Without the physical cues and context of in-person communication, remote work leaves space for different readings of sometimes simple messages. “In the digital context, often it's up to us to interpret tone of voice, and it's difficult to do that,” Sharma says. “So people can begin to question their sense of belonging, if they’re being bullied and if it’s intentional.” This grey area can be distressing for workers, but also provides a veil of plausible deniability for bullies themselves, where low-level mistreatment can thrive.
If seemingly minor incidents like offhand comments or small slights are ignored, the consequences can be serious for individual staff and the organisation as a whole. “The breeding ground for more serious types of harassment and bullying is the lower-level inappropriate behaviour that very often can just be brushed over,” Suff says. “And, if bullying isn’t dealt with it’s like a rash that spreads. It never stays confined to the individuals that were the original source.”
In the office, workers might be able to talk things through with a colleague - but that's harder in the remote-work world (Credit: Getty)
“It's important that bullying isn't seen as just an issue between the perpetrator and the target; it's a group issue,” Ng adds. Studies suggest that people who witness bullying can suffer the same negative impact on their wellbeing as those who are bullied. “It really affects group morale. People may feel afraid to share their opinions, more stressed, and that can lead to lower performance and engagement that ultimately affects the company.”
In general, workplace bullying is known to cause anxiety, depression and to reduce job performance. Yet, “there are certain characteristics of cyber bullying that can make it more damaging than traditional face to face bullying,” says Ng. “Especially the 24/7 availability and the ubiquity of technology and social media. Before you would be able to leave your workplace and maybe feel a bit safer, but now that division has been taken away.”
Fixing the problem
Before the pandemic, the group most likely to be responsible for workplace bullying was managers, who were accountable for 40% of all incidents according to the same CIPD study. In 2021, The Workplace Bullying Institute survey found that the same held true for remote work, with managers responsible for 47% of reported bullying.
Bosses at all levels also hold huge influence over attitudes towards bullying throughout organisations. “One of the key things that research emphasises is the role of the leader in modelling what good behaviour,” Ng says. Without a strong example of inclusive leadership, “employees might feel as though they can get away with bullying behaviours or that bullying behaviours are acceptable”, Ng adds.
As well as managers, the onus is on organisations to make sure they have structures in place to manage remote bullying, including clear pathways for remote employees to report incidents and assurances that they will be handled correctly – especially when managers are the bullies. This requires a proactive approach and, in some cases, deeper understanding of the subtle ways remote bullying can manifest.
For remote employees stuck in workplaces where bullying is an issue, one option is to take the issue to HR, especially if the perpetrator is a boss. Although speaking up takes courage, Sharma advises people do it sooner rather than later “so that matters can be treated with a sense of urgency, and they don't impact your mental wellbeing in the long term”.
People who do speak out can also do something in-person targets often cannot: provide evidence of bullying messages, emails and call logs. “Bullying is a repeated behaviour and if you can show it's a frequent experience then you have a stronger case,” Ng says. “One of the key things that differentiates cyber bullying from traditional bullying is that you normally have a trail of evidence.”
Joyce is using one name only for privacy reasons