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The New Kind of Workplace Bully


April 8, 2020  |  John Wiese


Ah, the workplace bully… the loud, obnoxious, and invasive personality that seems to pop-up when they are least expected and most unwanted. Put a group of strangers in a room together, and individual personalities are bound to clash. People might have different ideas of how a department should run, disagreements over prioritization, and frustration with their teammates’ work habits. Still, these disputes do not make a bully. A workplace bully is someone who goes out of their way to negatively impact the quality of work their teammates or employees are able to put out. For a deeper dive into the makings of a workplace bully, check out this blog post, How to Spot Bullying at Work. Here we will discuss another kind of bully, the work from home bully.

The new normal resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic has employees all over the world working from the comfort (or lack thereof) of their own homes. Many of us have turned that old desktop into a second monitor and pushed the game table up against a wall for a makeshift workspace. We are all adjusting, and for some that adjustment is easier than others. Many people have been quoted referring to quarantine as ‘the great equalizer.’ But this is terribly misinformed, and a bit tone-deaf. The shelter-in-place mandates being issued across the country have disproportionately affected historically disadvantaged communities, and the virus itself takes a more substantial toll on those very same communities. Similarly to how this pandemic has highlighted some of the inequalities we are facing today, it opens up a door for a whole new toxic work environment for companies that have previously operated out of brick-and-mortar facilities.

Spotting a remote workplace bully

Video chats provide a sneak peek into our coworkers’ personal living spaces that many workforces would not have dreamed of in years prior. Coworkers can now make assumptions about one another’s quality of life that were previously unbeknownst to them. This is problematic for some, who were under the impression that they were on the same pay grade as someone on their team. But again, these observations do not make a workplace bully; it is the subsequent, backhanded comments that are the building blocks for the remote work bully. Saying anything other than something complimentary about the backdrop of your coworker’s video calls could strike a chord that is better left untouched. Saying “Oh that looks just like the couch I had in my first college apartment!” or “Your walls are so bare! You should put some art up!” might not only make that person uncomfortable in that moment, but on every video call they take from that spot thereafter. The same can go for comments in the opposite direction. “Oh, your house is beautiful! Who paid for all this? Certainly not on our salary!” Comments like these are tone-deaf, make people uncomfortable, and are ill-informed. But remote work bullying can take on other forms.

Many employees are now faced with the difficult task of balancing hand-on childcare with their now remote job. This presents a plethora of opportunities for the workplace bully to sabotage their coworkers. One common bullying tactic is to purposefully exclude certain teammates or employees from meetings so that they don’t have the same opportunities to contribute or get ahead. In this instance, you might hear the workplace bully say something like, “Oh, I didn’t loop Karen into this meeting, her kids are constantly screaming in the background and she never mutes her microphone.” They might also cut meetings short on the same pretense. “You know… we can pick this up later clearly you have your hands full.”

The fact of the matter is, if someone is working from home, while trying to homeschool their young children, while trying to put three hot meals together every day, while trying to stay safe and healthy, there might never be a point in time when this person doesn’t have their hands full. Do not be the remote work bully, practice empathy with your coworkers and be flexible with the working parents on your team.

Bullies can fly under the radar

Unfortunately, bullying is not so cut and dry, it does not follow specific patterns and this new normal leaves a lot of openings for forms of bullying that we have not seen before. It is also more challenging to spot bullying as a bystander because we are all working in our own bubbles, and office communications don’t happen in the cubicle next to yours. Bullying might happen in email threads, private video chats, and one-on-one messaging threads. We also don’t have the opportunity to gripe about a workplace bully over the water cooler, so bad behavior can pile up and the victim may not even know they are being bullied. Check-in with each other, make sure your teammates feel supported on your team, and give your employees an opportunity to point out bad behavior when they see it. A stop by the HR office on the way to lunch is no longer a possibility, so make sure your employees have a platform to communicate to HR conveniently and openly when they feel that they are being bullied.

If you’re not sure what you’re experiencing is workplace bullying, ask one of our experts, and we’ll help you get to the bottom of it.


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