Remote Working and Bullying and Harassment

Posted in : HR Updates on 6 April 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

In ‘normal’ times a request for home working/remote working would typically take time to consider and set up, while the business and the employee discuss what steps would need to be put in place in terms of technology, support, communication, ‘fit’ with the role requirements and whether this would work for both parties before a decision was made.  Often when it was a ‘yes’ this new way of working might have been on a trial basis, while both parties considered if it was working and had the opportunity to monitor, review and tweak the arrangements. 

We are living in extraordinary times.  The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about urgent and sudden changes in our ways of working, with remote working (i.e. working from home) being required by businesses so that they can keep working through these difficult days. 

Some degree of planning by the business may have taken place in the short period before remote working was implemented, but for many this new way of working has required employees to adapt to working from home, deal with technology and online systems and consider work life balance (working but also being available for family members who are also at home) with no or minimal preparation. 

Managers need to be available to support their staff, maintain regular contact and help minimise the potential feelings of isolation and anxiety.  Organisations also need to be aware that Managers themselves may also be working remotely for the first time, feel anxious and overwhelmed, yet are trying to manage and support their team members.  HR Departments, working remotely, need to consider the well-being of all employees.  At this time when people are naturally experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety, how individuals are interacting and treating each other is critical.

HR Departments need to be aware of the risk of bullying and harassment of remote workers which can often be more subtle in this scenario.  HR must proactively support Managers and Staff to minimise the risk of bullying and harassment and communicate the support available to deal with this conduct if it occurs. 

Harassment is any unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.   

Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened.

So, what could potentially constitute bullying or harassment of remote workers?  Examples could include: 

  • Using remote technology e.g. posting comments about an employee on Facebook or gaining access to their accounts e.g. updating someone’s Facebook status
  • Micro-managing (versus what constitutes reasonable employee monitoring and assessment), particularly if doing this to one person and not to others
  • Demonstrating a subconscious bias, for example assuming women will be undertaking more childcare and/or housekeeping duties than men and therefore checking up on a female more than a male to make sure work is being done
  • Not inviting to/excluding someone from online meetings
  • Ignoring or belittling someone’s contribution at online meetings
  • Failing to copy someone into emails
  • Making decisions without including someone
  • Ignoring/not calling someone

This conduct will take place at a time when remote workers believe they have limited/reduced access to HR Support (given that HR staff may also be working remotely). Critically, at a time where there is anxiety and uncertainty about whether some businesses will survive or face a redundancy programme, individuals may also feel reluctant or afraid to raise such issues. 

So, what measures can organisations take to minimise the risk of bullying and harassment of remote workers? Organisations should consider a raft of wellbeing measures: 

  • Developing Remote Working Guides for Managers and Staff and communicate these via online training to Managers
  • Ensuring that Managers are aware of the potential for bullying and harassment (giving examples) and of the steps they should take in line with the Company’s policy
  • Providing training on the new technology and contact details for IT support
  • Ensure that staff know what is expected of them but be open and flexible about alternative working patterns
  • Communicate expectations clearly around when staff are available for work, how work will be monitored and assessed and how performance will be managed
  • Discuss and agree how to keep in touch
  • Try to use virtual meetings (eg Zoom, Teams, Skype) as this will allow you to consider body language and facial cues in addition to what is being said
  • Be clear about what support is available if staff have issues or concerns - provide contact details and signpost to a range of resources
  • Respond in a timely fashion to emails - even if it is only to say ‘I will get back to you’ - to ensure staff do not feel ignored or isolated
  • Don’t presume that one size fits all - regularly check in with your team members to ensure the arrangements are working for them and to see how they are doing
  • Perhaps meet virtually more often, have a virtual coffee break or schedule fun team online activities - to promote a sense of inclusiveness and reduce the feeling of isolation
  • Schedule meetings well in advance with a clear agenda - allowing staff to raise issues regarding availability
  • Discuss wellbeing and stress - open up the dialogue to share concerns and coping mechanisms

These are very challenging and worrying times for everyone.  It is critical that we are mindful of and take steps to balance the demands of workload, homeschooling, looking after ourselves as well as other family members and elderly, vulnerable parents.  Minimising the risk of bullying and harassment for remote workers can only help in achieving this balance. 

Related Article

Homeworking May Be The New Normal, But What Are The Employment Law Challenges?

Training Resources

[New] Protecting Yourself when Home Working in Northern Ireland eLearning training course (limited time offer available)

The unprecedented situation that COVID-19 has created in Northern Ireland has meant more employees than ever have been asked to work from home. Many employees will never have experienced working outside of the office and these employees should know how to protect themselves from injury and ill health during this time.

The purpose of this course is to provide all employees in your organisation with an overview on how to protect their physical and mental health whilst home working.

Click here to find out more about this course

Click here to get a free demo of this course

This article is correct at 06/04/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

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