Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Bullying in the virtual workplace

In the course of a recent workplace intervention, one of the employees I interviewed described a pattern of harassment via text message. While this woman was on vacation, one of her co-workers sent her a stream of angry messages berating her for (allegedly) leaving her files in a mess and letting everybody down.

Apparently thousands of miles isn’t far enough to eliminate workplace harassment.

Based on my experience there will be many people who are relieved to work at home and avoid having to face a feared supervisor or dreaded colleague in person. (This is one “silver lining” in these difficult times.)  At the same time, I also know that workplace bullying will continue in new forms, and that more than ever, leaders must insist on respectful behaviour.

Managers have to observe a delicate balance. On the one hand, everyone is under stress and we are all capable of less-than-gracious behaviour. Being forgiving in these trying circumstances is humane. At the same time I have been in too many organizations where poor behaviour is never addressed. The cost – in terms of morale, lowered productivity, and human emotion – is enormous. Leaders need to set clear boundaries and expectations around acceptable behaviour.

Here is what managers can do to ensure open dialogue and respectful behaviour during virtual meetings:

  1. Tone at the top is more important than ever. Participants will take their cues regarding behaviour from the leader. So set a good example.
  1. Begin each meeting with a quick “check in” to ask people how they are doing. This is more important than ever as employees are likely to be under a great deal of stress. A check-in gives people permission to speak personally, but doesn’t oblige them to. (Sometimes clients ask me – doesn’t this take up valuable time? On the contrary, my experience is that check-ins are a good use of time because they help everyone to focus. People will often mention something that has been preoccupying them and saying it out loud to others allows them to let go of it.)
  1. As the leader, you should start the check-in. How you answer will set the tone for how others respond.
  1. If you notice disrespectful behaviour during a video meeting – snide remarks, audible sighs, eye-rolling, or a sarcastic tone – you need to address it. However do this privately, in a separate call or video meeting. Public shaming – even of individuals who may “deserve” it – is not good for workplace culture.
  1. When addressing disrespectful behaviour, be matter-of-fact and name the behaviour that you found disrespectful. You can say something like, “You seemed on edge during the meeting. I noticed that you rolled your eyes and sighed deeply when Sally was sharing her ideas. Whether you meant it or not, your actions came over as disrespectful.  Please share your perspective in a way that doesn’t involve…”
  1. End the meeting with a “check out.” Depending on your workplace culture and the type of organization, you might ask participants to share something that they learned, something they appreciate about a co-worker, or one action they will take based on the meeting. Again, the leader should go first and how he/she speaks will set the tone for the others.

Stay tuned for a future post on maintaining a positive culture when you’re back to interacting in person.

About the image: Excluded from the Group. Source: Stuart Miles, StockVault

Posted in Workplace/Employment.