Remote Working and Bullying

Remote working is nothing new.  With developments in technology many workers have done this for years, whether working from home full time or on a hybrid basis with occasional days in the office.  However, the numbers working from home have increased dramatically since the pandemic hit almost a year ago and many employers were ill prepared for this.

For many home working is a welcome relief – no more grueling commutes and the opportunity for more family time whilst wearing a comfortable pair of slippers.  For others this change has been less welcome for a variety of reasons.  We are all in a different boat.

With the exception of the work location, most terms and conditions of employment remain in place.  From an employer’s points of view they need to monitor the productivity of their employees and manage performance, albeit virtually.  Disciplinary issues may continue to arise, employees still get sick, family issues arise, women get pregnant and redundancies are taking place in higher numbers. All of these employment issues need to be managed and employers always need to act reasonably in their approach.

Despite the lack of face-to-face contact when working remotely, the issue of bullying does not disappear, and many employees have been suffering in silence in recent months.

Bullying can take many forms.  Whilst the obvious perception of bullying includes offensive, intimidating or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power, bullying can also include being sidelined or ignored.  The victim of bullying may feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened.  Examples of bullying in the remote setting may include unconstructive criticism, sub-conscious bias, micro-management, ignoring an employee (e.g. not inviting them to a meeting), failure to consult/include or inappropriate comments on social media. Sometimes behaviour may give the perception of bullying in a remote work setting, for example an email communication may convey nuance when you can’t use body language to convey the true meaning.

Sometimes the bullying or harassment may feel more personal and relate to gender, race, age, sexual orientation or a disability.  Bullying and harassment in these categories is likely to amount to unlawful discrimination and this could give rise to a claim in the employment tribunal.

It is more difficult for an employer to monitor and identify bullying when employees are all working from home.  There is also less likely to be witnesses to such behaviour, so this may be harder for an employer to investigate and manage.  However, employers must have a grievance procedure in place to deal effectively with concerns and ideally a policy on anti-harassment and bullying.

More than ever there has been a focus on employee well-being in the last year and it is easy to see why.  An employer continues to have health and safety obligations for their employee, even when working from home.  Managers should be available to support staff, communicate frequently and help minimize the potential feelings of isolation and anxiety.

As always, if you are an employee suffering from bullying or any other work-related concern you are advised not to suffer in silence.  Ideally this should be raised informally in the first instance with a trusted line manager, colleague or HR. Alternatively request a copy of the grievance policy and consider options under that route.  If this is not appropriate or your efforts to resolve things at work are not addressed, you should seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity before the bullying weighs you down or you consider that resignation is your only option.

This blog is by Caroline Oliver, Senior Solicitor at Didlaw