There have been a number of stories in the news about workplace bullying. Most of them revolve around incidents of physical intimidation and threats. So, working from home seems like a good answer to the problem. But a recent conversation with someone brought something else to light: Can you be the victim of workplace bullying and harassment when you aren’t in the same location as the other party? The answer is yes.
While the definition of “bullying” varies, there’s no doubt that there can be highly charged, intimidating, negative behavior that occurs in a remote work environment. As a Long-Distance Leader, you need to be aware of the signs and know how to quickly address any situations before they become major problems.
Some negative behaviors are obvious:
- Threats or humiliating language by email, voicemail or social media
- Verbally berating people or belittling them on conference calls, meetings or webconferences
- Deliberately lying, spreading rumors about people
- Threatening or demanding extra work or favors
- Off color, racist, obscene or just plain creepy texts, IM’s and messages
Other behaviors are more insidious, but no less damaging.
- Making disparaging remarks during meetings that don’t rise to actual bullying but either undercut confidence or diminish the other person in the eyes of the team
- Intentionally excluding people from information, then accusing them of not paying attention
- Bad-mouthing team members to each other (whether the information is accurate or not)
- Lying or withholding critical information
When there’s bullying going on in a traditional workplace, there are often witnesses. Because each member of the team may be isolated in a different location, that’s not the case with remote teams. Much of the negative behavior happens between individuals and may not be obvious to others.
As a leader, what’s your role in handling this (assuming you’re not the person doing the bullying, but let’s assume you’re not.)?
Be alert for signs of trouble.
Does it seem that someone is unreasonably critical of another team member? Are they constantly trying to get that person in trouble or get assignments pulled from them? Are there rumors on the team that “so and so is really hard on ____” ? Are there sudden changes in behavior from team members, like suddenly not contributing to team discussions or volunteering information?
Find out what’s going on. Really listen without judgment.
It’s easy to write complaints off as whining or over-reacting, just as it’s easy to treat every micro-aggression as a bigger deal than it is. Talk to the aggrieved party without judgment. Ask clarifying questions, and don’t respond right away other with empathy.
Talk to the aggressive party honestly and be clear about expected behavior and consequences.
If normal performance coaching doesn’t work, you have to treat this as an extreme situation. Describe the behavior you’ve witnessed or have evidence of, explain why it’s out of bounds, and what is the expected behavior. Also, what will the consequences be if the negative behavior continues? You may (and probably should) get HR involved if your company has professionals on staff.
Document. Document. Document.
For reasons of solving the problem, and protecting all parties if it becomes a legal matter, document (and ask the victim to document) all relevant communication, complaints, steps taken and follow-up. Since true bullying goes beyond normal interpersonal behavior, it is important not to leave it up to one person’s word versus another.
Long-Distance Leaders treat their team members as more than just a means to get work done. They create an environment where people can work together at a high level and do their best work. This is not a “touchy-feely” issue, or just human decency. There are compelling business reasons to make sure that bullying and aggression don’t take place, even when you can’t see it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.