Is bullying still an issue in a hybrid workplace?

Laura Little explains how organisations should be supporting workers who feel they are being intimidated by colleagues 

We all have different opinions on how we’d like to return to the office. Some of us are desperate to get back, while others are keen to keep working from home. But the vast majority would like something in between. A recent survey by CIPHR has found that as many as 72 per cent of employees want to split their time in some way between home and the workplace.

With such a range of views, it appears that for at least the foreseeable future, hybrid working is going to be the answer. Within accountancy, both EY and BDO have indicated in the last few weeks that they will be moving towards a hybrid model after the pandemic.

But as we navigate this new way of working, there are questions that need to be answered. One of which is that of bullying.

You might expect bullying to become less of an issue in a hybrid workplace. After all, how can a colleague bully you while you’re working apart? The reality, however, is quite different. A new survey by Bupa UK has found that the number of employees who reported having experienced bullying has actually increased over the past three years, with rates almost doubling since 2019. Considering how many of us have been working from home this past year-and-a-half, the data seems to suggest quite clearly that we don’t need to be in the office to be bullied.

Even in accountancy, we’ve seen issues on this front. Earlier this year, the head of people at a Big Four firm was required to step down in March after accusations of bullying. This, of course, followed the resignation of the chair of KPMG in February, on account of his aggressive response to team members struggling with the current lockdown restrictions.

Whatever the circumstances, if a colleague or a boss is treating you in a way that is hurtful, don’t dismiss it. Whether it’s taking place over email, social media or even the phone, you are just as entitled to seek help as if your experience were in person. And there are actions that you can take:

Tell somebody

Perhaps the most important response is to talk to someone who can help you understand your rights and what steps you can take. This could be a manager, a member of HR or even a union representative. Any one of these individuals should be able to tell you about your employer’s policy or grievance procedure when it comes to bullying.

It can also be helpful to share your worries with friends, family or colleagues. You may find that they've experienced similar problems and are able to offer some advice. If nothing else, talking things through with people who care about you can often help you to feel less alone and more positive about yourself.

Keep a record

If you’re being bullied repeatedly, make a note of the abuse that you’re receiving. It doesn’t matter how small it might seem; keep a record of exactly what’s happened, when and who was involved. If you can, save any evidence, such as emails or messages. This will be incredibly important if you pursue a formal complaint and might actually be easier if you’re being bullied remotely, and your abuse is therefore being received by means such as email or instant messaging.

See your GP

Bullying of any kind can have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing, performance at work and even our physical health. People who are being bullied can suffer from a range of health issues, including headaches, anxiety and poor sleep. If you think your health is suffering because you're being bullied at work, consider speaking to your GP about it.

If left unchecked, people who experience workplace bullying often lose self-confidence and become increasingly isolated and withdrawn. In some cases, victims may even begin to suffer from panic attacks. Whether it’s remote or in person, when it comes to your health, don’t be afraid to seek some help.

Go direct

Depending on the severity of your situation, you may want to speak to the person who is bullying you directly about how their behaviour is affecting you. Hybrid working might actually make this process easier, as a conversation could be arranged and even recorded via a video conferencing platform, rather than in person.

However you decide to approach this, think about exactly what you're going to say before you go into this conversation. This will help you stay calm and also ensure you communicate exactly what it is that you want the perpetrator to know. Likewise, don’t be afraid to bring a manager or a HR representative into this conversation.

If you can face it, this may prove one of the most effective responses to an instance of workplace bullying. You’re showing that you’re prepared to take a stand and might even discover that your bully has no idea how much their actions have been distressing you.

Make a formal complaint

In some situations, you might feel as though making a formal complaint is the only way forward. Find out what procedures your employer has in place. This should tell you who exactly you should make the complaint to and how it will be dealt with.

Laura Little is learning and development manager at Chartered Accountants' Benevolent Association (CABA)