How to Stop Bullying in the Digital Workplace
Bullying in the workplace is a real problem for organizations today, a 2021 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute found.
According to the research, 13% of respondents had experienced workplace bullying in the previous 12 months. That number raises to 30% when the time frame is expanded. And another 19% said they had witnessed or heard of bullying in the workplace.
All told, the report estimates 48.6 million Americans are bullied in the workplace. Compounding the issue is the fact that many workers don't report acts of bullying. A potential reason for this is a lack of clarity on what workplace bullying is.
What Counts as Workplace Bullying?
The term bullying is often used in the context of children, so it may be difficult to picture what it looks like in an adult workplace. Unfortunately the bad habits don't stop at the playground.
As the Workplace Bullying Institute defines it, workplace bullying is abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or verbal abuse.
Any comments or discrimination against a person based on gender, sexual preferences, race, age or religion are considered bullying. The definition of bullying can also be extended to comments made or actions taken to make an individual feel uncomfortable. While bullying is considered a repeated action, a single comment, when left unchallenged, can lead to more.
The problem is that in the digital world, these comments can go unnoticed. A one-on-one Zoom call leaves no witnesses or traces of harmful comments, unless recorded. And while emails and chats can provide evidence, they can be difficult to ascertain when taken out of context and without "tone" or intent. The same report found that most bullying in the digital workplace occurred during virtual meetings, rather than email and that occurrences of bullying were significantly higher among those who worked remotely.
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The Costs of Workplace Bullying
In addition to the harm workplace bullying causes to the person being targeted, there are also costs to the organization.
For example, one study noted that bullying causes 26% higher absenteeism and contributes to 2% of all absenteeism.
Retention can also be a problem, with 25% of bullying targets stating they plan to quit their jobs. An employee leaving a role can be a massive loss for a company. Not only does it cost to replace them, but it can take a while for a replacement to get up to the same level of productivity as the departed employee, not to mention the knowledge and experience lost in the process. The impact on a team — if the perpetrator and target are on the same team — can be toxic.
Then there's productivity itself. A bullied employee is unlikely to feel as engaged in the success of the organization, and may avoid speaking or sharing ideas out of fear or disconnect. The person can also be kept from taking part in skills development programs that would have helped the company in its mission.
There are many reasons why it's important for leaders to stop a toxic culture from taking hold, even if tarnished by one bad apple.
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How to Stop Bullying in the Digital Workplace
Organizational leaders can stop bullying from happening and destroying their workplace in several ways. Some of the steps are proactive, others, reactive. Here are four options.
1. Establish Effective Policies
It may sound overly simplistic, but having a policy that forbids bullying in any form is still a first step in this process.
"One-way companies can prevent bullying in a digital workforce is by having clear policies, procedures and practices that prohibit workplace bullying," said Eric Mochnac, a senior consultant at Red Clover.
The reason policies help stop bullying is because oftentimes, when someone witnesses bullying, they don't know what to do. Having a written procedure and a formal process for dealing with the situation provides them with direction and allows employees to feel confident they are doing the right thing.
Many elements should be included within the policy, such as examples of behaviors that are and aren't acceptable, along with the consequences, but it should remain easy to understand and straight-forward. Employees should not feel lost in legalese and fearing repercussions, particularly if the bully happens to be a superior.
An anonymous hotline, for instance, could be a great way to report questionable behavior. Employees need to feel comfortable and confident that reporting bullying incidents will not harm them in return.
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Similarly, the company needs to be clear on the actions it will take. Mochnac said employees will be very unhappy if a manager is reported for bullying behavior and nothing is done.
2. Assume Bullying Is Happening
Some managers may think their teams are above bullying, that these acts don't happen in their workplace. But according to Trevor Sookraj, CEO of Divisional, the increase of remote work has actually contributed to the increase in workplace bullying.
The reason is simple: it is much easier to post harmful comments about someone who is not physically present.
If managers assume workplace bullying is happening, it is easier to address the issue and take action against it.
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3. Foster Positivity and Camaraderie
Some people believe there has been a spike in bullying due to business uncertainty.
Babar Khan Javed, director at Z2C Limited, said the current environment can cause insecurities at all levels of the organization, which can prompt some managers to set unrealistic expectations for their employees.
Employees need to feel secure in their roles to work at their best, and if managers feel like they are under pressure and therefore are putting unrealistic expectations on employees, the level of trust is destroyed. As a result, employees will shy away from their work and become disengaged. They may also leave the company.
Leaders play an important role in ensuring that managers, from the bottom up, contribute to a positive culture that is rooted in mutual respect and camaraderie.
As with any issue, training provides unparalleled opportunities for improving the workplace. Employers should work in tandem with HR leaders to produce training that promotes the company values and demonstrates the harm caused by bullying.
Staff should also be trained to spot and report acts of bullying, even if it isn't about them. It could be as simple as training employees on the anti-bullying policies established in Step One above.
Having an honest heart to heart about what constitutes bullying, the ramifications of these actions on everyone and how the company plans to address this in the future is a great start to mitigating the risk in your workplace.
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About the Author
Kaya Ismail is a business software journalist and commentator with years of experience in the CMS industry. He is also the Founder of Wordify, a content marketing agency for software vendors.