Bullying and harassment: HR’s role within the virtual world

Richard Peachey, Head of Business Development at CMP and Andy Shettle, Chief Product Officer at Selenity, explore the impact that remote working has had on bullying and harassment cases during the pandemic, and how employee relations teams can ensure staff wellbeing is a top priority

Although employees might not currently be in the office working full-time, employee relations cases are still ongoing. This has encouraged HR departments to adopt a remote working model. While virtual working has allowed businesses to carry on as normally as they can, it’s only natural that working remotely has led to some employees feeling more isolated with some struggling to cope with their mental health.

As strict guidelines are put into effect by the Government to reduce the impact of Covid-19, people are becoming hyper-aware of their co-worker’s health. Anxiety can lead employees to feel like they’ve been treated unfairly by co-workers due to fears of spreading the illness. According to a survey from the office for national statistics (ONS), 84.9% of respondents said they felt anxious, stressed and that their wellbeing was being affected during the pandemic.

Remote working brings challenges

“Some may think that bullying and harassment only takes place in office environments where employees are interacting face-to-face. But negativity and bullying is just as likely to happen remotely as it is in the office, as employees are able to communicate instantly via applications such as Microsoft Teams or Skype 24 hours a day. Bullying can take form in a number of ways, it could be as simple as interrupting or ignoring someone on a group chat or perceiving a direct message in the wrong way which causes offence.

The shift to virtual working has seen an increase in the use of video conferencing technology as a way to connect employees and replicate life in the office. While this has proved to be beneficial overall, employees may be expected to have the camera on at all times and even accused of not looking presentable. This can pose further questions around personal privacy and whether employees feel comfortable appearing on camera while working from home. “Some employees may experience levels of sexual harassment during video calls, this could happen by colleagues inappropriately commenting on others wearing informal or inappropriate clothing, as opposed to working in the office where the dress code is more formal. Organisations need to set out clear policy and guidance on how to properly communicate via video to prevent any of these issues from arising.” explains Richard Peachey, who shares his insight from working with organisations during the pandemic, through his work at conflict resolution specialist’s CMP.

The conflict around staff returning from furlough

Richard goes on to say: “The Government’s furlough scheme has provided much needed support for many businesses and employees up and down the country. However, furlough has had both an emotional, mental and financial impact on employees which could result in further conflict. There could also be some animosity and tension between those employees put on furlough and those not, as well as worrying about the return to work and whether redundancy is looming. Due to the coronavirus impacting various demographics and categories of people, there could be a rise in discrimination cases. Older employees may be shielding and not able to return to work, while childcare responsibilities may see the rise of gender discrimination where men could be expected to return to work before women.”

Another potential issue is that employees may be holding back any concerns of bullying and choosing not to raise any issues with their manager, in hope that the issue will disappear with the return to the office. Even if businesses choose to open up offices in some capacity, it is likely that remote working will remain for the foreseeable future. This could have a big impact on the individual as the case could get worse and remain unresolved, not to mention the emotional impact. There’s an added risk that if left the case could result in an employment tribunal which could have financial and reputational implications for the business.

Adapting to the new normal

As employees continue to work from home, the HR department holds a central role in ensuring that cases involving claims of bullying and harassment are thoroughly managed. With face-to-face communication limited for the time being, employee relations teams will need to regularly check in with employees ensuring that support is on hand at all times.

“In a time where the industry has had to adapt, COVID-19 has encouraged HR departments to vary their approach to resolution. In a recent webinar looking at how to manage complex cases remotely, we found that 86% of practitioners were doing this and implementing different approaches, such as organising virtual meetings. Being flexible is an important part of giving employees the support they need at a time when they could be feeling anxious and isolated at home.” concludes CMP’ Richard Peachey.

Monitoring cases through technology

Andy Shettle, Selenity’s Chief Product Officer explains: “Even before the pandemic where employees were able to work together face-to-face in the office, manual processing such as using spreadsheets, are proving even more of a challenge. Not only is this process inefficient, it also consumes large amounts of time and important information can be lost along the way. With a number of employees now working remote and potentially trying to access the same spreadsheet of information, employee relations teams are likely to encounter even more problems regarding accessing and sharing documents with more than one person.”

As well as being able to utilise various communication tools that mirror the personal approach taken in the office, employee relations teams can benefit from case management technology, which can help teams to stay on top of cases and manage various stages behind the scenes. Utilising case management software can provide a robust and transparent system for reporting and managing all information regarding a case. This provides a constant line of communication between the employee and individual managing the case, this data can also be easily collected and used in an outcomes report to inform future decisions regarding the case.

The main challenge for remote working employee relations teams centres around having the ability to control and monitor any given case, at any time. So, a case management tool is a vital part of allowing organisations to do this. It also allows employee relations teams to stay aligned to any processes and follow important procedure. If there are any changes outside of the policy or procedure, these can be explained every step of the way via the employee’s record which includes background notes and recent updates relating to the individual.

“In light of the pandemic, cases may be taking longer than normal, therefore being able to record any delays in the case notes will help give useful insight and explanation for managers requesting an overview. As well as all the process management and compliance, it also helps HR teams to bring back employees who have been bullied, furloughed or sick, allowing them to transition back into day-to-day working and prevent future events from occurring.” Concludes Andy Shettle.

Monitoring bullying and harassment in the long-term

Bullying and harassment is serious and an issue which could get worse as organisations continue to adopt remote working models. It’s important that HR and employee relations teams are fully aware of the challenges and potential risks which employees will be faced with and must put steps in place to support them in the best way possible.


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