Tackling bullying and harassment in a remote working environment

Inappropriate behaviour that may be obvious in the office may not be as visible when staff are at home, which can make victims feel nervous about speaking out, says Carolyn Soakell

Since the switch to mass home working in the last year, there has been a significant focus on promoting employee wellbeing, both physical and mental, while workforces adjust to new working arrangements. 

Employers are getting to grips with how their general health and safety obligations translate to home working, and most large organisations have comprehensive support processes in place, including employee assistance programmes. But the remote working environment presents a challenge in terms of identifying and addressing situations where dysfunctional workplace relationships are having an impact on mental wellbeing, and in particular where an employee may be experiencing bullying or harassment.

Bullying behaviour that would be obvious in the office, allowing employers to take steps to address it, is less visible when staff are working remotely. Such behaviour may be exacerbated if those responsible feel they are not being observed. 

Victims of bullying may feel more nervous about speaking up in circumstances where no one else is likely to have seen the bullying behaviour. Interactions that are exclusively by phone or video call also make it more difficult for colleagues to pick up on the cues that might indicate that an employee is distressed. It is essential that employers have structures in place to ensure managers are making regular contact with their reports, and are prepared to discuss their wellbeing alongside business-as-usual work matters. 

Employees may not feel comfortable raising bullying and harassment concerns with their manager – and in some cases the manager may be the perpetrator of the behaviour – so it is also important to ensure there is route outside line management, which employees can easily access to get help to raise concerns. This may be through HR, via designated inclusion or culture champions, or under arrangements like the Guardians Programme developed by The Old Vic theatre. Businesses are also increasingly turning to technology solutions, such as online reporting tools, for flagging harassment, bullying and other workplace misconduct.

Employer obligations to tackle bullying and harassment have not changed simply by virtue of the remote working environment, and the same employment law issues arise. Harassment related to a protected characteristic is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Other bullying and harassment can lead to constructive dismissal claims, and potential civil claims for personal injury. Grievance and disciplinary policies still apply.

However, consideration does need to be given to how best to follow formal processes in the event that potential bullying and harassment comes to light. Any suspected bullying or harassment should be investigated without unreasonable delay. It may be possible for the employer to arrange investigation meetings and any hearings at the workplace in the normal way. 

Otherwise, an effective process should be possible by holding meetings remotely via the employer’s usual video call facilities. This has downsides, such as facilitating the right to be accompanied at a formal hearing, meaning breaks may need to be taken to allow employee and companion to confer. 

It is also more difficult to ensure confidentiality in the virtual context. For example, it is hard to monitor who else may be present with the employee, and employers will not be able to rule out the possibility of a meeting being recorded. But prevention is better than cure, and now is a good time for businesses to review their dignity at work policies and anti-harassment training, as well consider what training could be put in place to support managers of newly dispersed teams. 

Alongside clear communication about expectations, leadership role-modelling of positive behaviours will set the cultural tone for the organisation and help to create an environment in which victims of bullying and harassment feel able to speak up and are confident that their concerns will be treated seriously when they do so.

Carolyn Soakell is a partner in the employment team at Lewis Silkin