If you’re like most people in 2020, you’ve probably found yourself working and leading from home, experiencing a multitude of operational complexities and concerns.

One area of focus that mustn’t be ignored is maintaining and promoting a professional and respectful workplace culture. When you work from home, every day might be (very) casual Friday, but being too relaxed about your work culture and allowing professional boundaries to slide can create an environment ripe for harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Spotting Harassment and Bullying Remotely

Toxic and harassing behaviour can extend far beyond physical, in-person interactions (more on this topic here). In fact, studies have shown workplaces that are decentralized, isolated or remote are at a higher risk of harassment.

Some employees may become desensitized in a remote environment, thinking they can say and do anything, regardless of workplace policies and behaviour expectations. Others may feel they need to be less accountable for their behaviour due to a perceived lack of oversight and repercussions.

In the face of dramatically different working conditions, bullies are likely to still be bullies, and people may be feeling more vulnerable and alone, making things worse. Being behind a screen or an email or messaging system may make it seem easier to bully, harass or discriminate without direct consequences. On the flip (and more positive) side, with less opportunity for face-to-face conflict, some of the behaviours exhibited in the office may have diminished. However, those may start to recur once you return to shared office spaces.

So, how do you know if your remote workplace is toxic? Here are a few of the red flags (watch for these in the office as well):

Signs of a Toxic Remote Employee

  • Saying out-of-character negative, unkind or insulting things via chat or Zoom that you don’t think would otherwise have been said in person.
  • Showing up late to meetings, treating time-sensitive concerns and commitments as an afterthought.
  • Being unusually rude, abrupt, or dismissive to colleagues over video calls or emails.
  • Intentionally undermining a competent colleague with constant criticism.
  • Saying inappropriate, suggestive, gossipy, or otherwise uncalled for things to colleagues.
  • Making a habit out of complaining and expressing negativity.
  • Micromanaging or any other misuse of authority and power.

Preventing Toxicity and Misconduct in Your Remote Workplace

  • Check Your Policies: Review, update if necessary, and distribute your policies to all employees, ensuring that the policies address behavioural expectations for respectful remote work, as well as toxic behaviours like bullying, abusive, or intimidating conduct.
  • Continue to Provide Training: Be sure to stick with a program of regular respectful workplace awareness, and diversity and inclusion training. There are so many great options for the delivery of your own or third-party virtual workshops and courses.
  • Open Communication: Take time to individually touch base with your team members, study their mannerisms, and ask the right questions. Pay close attention to attendance at and behaviour in team meetings (who has their camera on/off and why?). “Listen” for tone in emails and other chats. Send out a check-in or wellbeing survey.
  • Provide Resources: Your employees need to know that you’re there to protect them, in and out of the office. If you haven’t already, set up a formal reporting mechanism for complaints: the contact information for a dedicated member of your HR team, or a third-party call-in number or helpline. Review and ensure staff have access to information about any available extended health and family benefits. Send out a reminder about all of these resources and confirm that everyone can access them while working remotely.
  • Be Prepared to Act: If you’ve spotted workplace misconduct or have received a complaint, be prepared to act fast. Working remotely is no excuse for delaying an investigation. An effective, fair investigation under any circumstances can go a long way towards maintaining your employees’ trust and reducing liability for employers. Ensure contact among the parties is limited appropriately, investigate internally or with external help (that’s where Cenera comes in), and act on your findings – just as you would in the office.


Need more support? If you would like to discuss the need for a neutral, third-party workplace investigation, external helpline, or any other HR matter, contact us today!

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