Date posted: 24/08/2022 10 min read

Conduct unbecoming: How cyber bullying crashed work culture

Despite many employees having less face-to-face contact with colleagues during COVID lockdowns, bullying in the workplace continues to rear its ugly, insidious head.

In Brief

  • In research conducted by Segal Conflict Solutions, 48% of participants agreed bullying had increased since the advent of COVID.
  • Aggressive conduct, humiliating comments, mind games, unreasonable work demands, exclusion from online work sessions – the abuse can take many forms.
  • Programs that support employees’ mental health and wellbeing can make a difference and potentially mitigate bullying.

By Cameron Cooper
Illustrations Tanya Cooper

Office bullies have a new weapon in their armoury – the computer. Despite the expectation that work-from-home employees might be less exposed to bullying, the signs suggest otherwise with online abuse and the mistreatment of remote and hybrid workers widespread across offices.

In research conducted by Segal Conflict Solutions, 48% of participants agreed bullying had increased since the advent of COVID-19. More than one-third felt they could not talk to human resources teams about the bullying and 91.2% did not feel supported during the complaints process.

“I’m not seeing a decrease in the number of bullying cases. It’s as rampant as ever,” says Saranne Segal, a conflict resolution expert and the director of Segal Conflict Solutions mediation services in Sydney.

Aggressive conduct, humiliating comments, mind games, unreasonable work demands, exclusion from online work sessions – the abuse can take many forms. One of the key problems, according to Segal, is that many leaders are struggling to manage employees who are not in their line of sight in a traditional office setting.

As a result, they may neglect communications about workplace problems or accusations of abuse from team members. “This work-from-home scenario has been thrust on managers and many of them don’t have the skills or training to deal with it,” she explains.

Natasha Hawker, co-founder and managing director of Sydney-based HR and recruitment firm Employee Matters, says there are many ways for bullies to target home-based employees. “Bullying can be very overt or covert,” she says. “What working from home has done is bring it under the radar even more than before because there are usually no witnesses to it. It often happens on Zoom and it may not have been recorded.”

What is bullying?

How cyberbullying crashed work culture

The Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia defines bullying as a scenario whereby “a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards another worker or group of workers” and “the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety”.

It is different to sexual harassment, which refers to unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favours and discrimination, which entails an employer taking adverse action against an employee – such as firing or demoting them – for reasons relating to their sex, race, religion or gender.

As director of workplace and legal advisory firm Corvus Group, Leonie Green’s career is about implementing positive change and creating better workplaces for people. She says bosses and employees also need to understand when bullying is not occurring. For example, tough but reasonable conversations about poor work performance or practices are part and parcel of employment.

“This is just proper performance management based on an employee not meeting their objectives,” Green says. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. We can say it’s not bullying but you still have two people who are not working well together, or not communicating effectively and that hurts productivity and culture.”

Green is concerned that proper workplace conversations have gone on the backburner during the pandemic. She puts this down to the additional stress and anxiety that many work-from-home staff are experiencing, which has left them with little “bandwidth” to discuss issues such as bullying. The isolation of home offices is also problematic.

“You can have a really difficult conversation and at the end of the Zoom call you’re completely alone,” Green says. “There’s no person at the next desk who can see the impact of that discussion and check if you’re OK or want a coffee.”

Addressing toxic work cultures

How cyberbullying crashed work culture

Anti-bullying crusader Allan Halse, director of workplace education organisation CultureSafe NZ in Hamilton, says common workplace bullying scenarios include overloading staff with work, giving them incorrect information, or failing to provide the appropriate training with a view to forcing them out of the organisation.

He adds that one-on-one online meetings play into the hands of “clever bullies”. “They don’t bully you overtly, or in a way that someone can witness it, otherwise they’d be gone,” Halse shares.

Citing the research of American social psychologist Dr Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, Halse says it is unwise in most cases to bring together the antagonists – the alleged bully and the target – in an effort to solve a bullying dispute. “That’s because it’s not really a communication problem, or a conflict, it’s about a disparity of power. So you can’t put two people in a room to sort it out.”

“It’s not really a communication problem, or a conflict, it’s about a disparity of power.”
Allan Halse, CultureSafe NZ

Most people are not born bullies, Halse adds. They model behaviour and learn by watching. That makes it imperative for businesses to resist promoting rude and obnoxious people who force their way to the top. “We need positive role models,” he says.

Dealing with bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination during the past 15 years, workplace consultant and director of Maureen Kyne & Associates in Shepparton, Victoria, Maureen Kyne has witnessed the worst of employee behaviour. From stabbing threats made towards colleagues to malicious accusations about staff, she’s seen and heard it all.

Now, with the working from home trend, she has noticed a blurring of workplace boundaries and a lack of management instruction and supervision around inappropriate behaviour. Kyne believes training and positive modelling are required to reset conduct. “We can push policy and legislation and law out there to get people to reform, but it’s got to be the individual who is willing to change,” she explains.

Businesses also have to play their part, says Kyne, and not just tick the boxes on annual workplace policy and training reviews. This can create a culture in which oblivious leaders and managers ignore bullying claims and let issues fester.

Kyne cites the example of what she calls “poisonous rainmakers”, those workers who generate significant income for the business and because of this they seem to get away with conduct unbecoming.

“But, in the meantime, you might lose 10 staff in 18 months because the rainmaker is creating storms,” she says. “The problem is that managers often don’t step in to have those difficult conversations.”

Fighting for respect

Kyne recommends conducting internal audits to minimise bullying, including articulating values, addressing workplace change, determining ways to mitigate risk and uncertainty, examining workplace planning, and communicating with staff about bullying.

Programs that support employees’ mental health and wellbeing can make a difference and potentially reduce bullying. Wellbeing initiatives create stronger and more resilient workers, says Employee Matters’ Hawker.

“Bullies pick their targets for a reason and they are often those people who are less confident or strong,” she says. “They are also keenly aware of what they can ‘get away with’. Having policies, training and a strong directive from the top will help reduce the likelihood of bullying in the workplace.”

Conflict resolution expert Segal says whether people are working in a traditional office or from home, respect and personal boundaries must be acknowledged.

She endorses five steps to promote a harmonious workplace environment and stem bullying:

1. Lead with empathy – listening to staff and hearing their views creates a better culture and less likelihood of bullying

2. Know and communicate your values – and tweak them, if necessary, in hybrid workplaces

3. Have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying – otherwise it will become the norm

4. Consider hiring an external investigator to handle complex grievances – that could increase your legal exposure risk

5. Conduct regular check-ins with staff – especially those working out of the office.

Such actions create an employee-centric culture in which bullying is less likely to occur, Segal says. Leaders should also be aware of trends such as employee absences or productivity drops that are indicators of abuse or harassment in the workplace. “It’s an ongoing process involving managers and HR having their fingers on the pulse,” she says.

Ultimately, the most effective step to take in reducing the risk of bullying is to be decisive, says Green. “If you let an issue fester, that bleeds into your culture and how people experience your culture. Staff will say, ‘I put in a complaint about bullying and nothing happened’. So act early.”


Wellbeing for all

Founder of Melbourne firm, Corvus Group, Leonie Green suggests three key questions for management teams to ask as they address wellbeing issues.

1. What are we doing to support mental health?

Mental health first aid should be a standard component of manager and supervisor training in workplaces.

2. What workplace culture do we want to create?

This question reveals a business’s principles and what it celebrates. “Culture occurs whether it’s intentional or not,” Green says. “Surely you want to be intentional in the way that you create a culture that is supportive of mental health and wellbeing, rather than detrimental.”

3. What to do when it all goes horribly wrong?

When there are failures around culture and bullying they need to be addressed head-on and quickly, according to Green. “And they tie into what we are doing to support our mental health. How we respond feeds a good culture and support for mental wellbeing, or a culture where bullying festers.”


Stopping the bullies

As many as 60% of workers experience bullying in their careers. For employees who believe they are being bullied, Employee Matters’ Natasha Hawker advises the following steps:

  • Check with HR or management to see if your organisation has a bullying and complaints process and, if it does, follow the guidelines
  • Keep a detailed diary of the alleged bullying, including records of incidents and conversations
  • Approach the bully, but only if you feel safe and comfortable to do so, and let them know their behaviour is not appropriate
  • Advise your manager about the bullying, seek their advice and, if they do nothing, go above their head to raise the matter with more senior leaders.

Leadership teams need to outline a code of conduct and have a complaints process through measures such as induction programs, workplace behaviour sessions and in-house communication channels.

Management must be very clear that it will not tolerate bullying behaviour. “You have got to encourage staff to speak up and say: ‘I’m not going to let that bullying behaviour go by anymore’.”


Equity rules

Workplace consultant Maureen Kyne lives and works in Shepparton, Victoria, a multicultural area with diverse socio-economic backgrounds where there can be racial and cultural misunderstandings – and bullying – among employees.

One workplace has adopted a great idea whereby every fortnight a worker brings in a meal of their own origin and shares it with their co-workers, she says. They discuss the recipe, its heritage and where to get the ingredients locally.

“All of a sudden people become more aware and they celebrate their different cultures,” Kyne reflects.

Conflict resolution expert Saranne Segal says hybrid workplaces enable organisations to be more diverse and bring in talent nationally and globally. She advocates creating a diversity, equity and inclusion calendar that includes cultural, religious and secular events and holidays.

Employee Matters’ Natasha Hawker suggests adopting a buddy system whereby workers from different cultures are paired up is a great way to encourage bonding that may help create greater cultural understanding. “It all comes down to education and breaking down stereotypes,” Hawker says.


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