By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos, Journalist and Correspondent at The European Business Review
“Since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply.” — Jennifer Brown, a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert.
As companies have increasingly switched to remote and hybrid models, workplace bullying and discrimination have thrived in more subtle ways which becomes harder to prove. Unfair work practices and biased treatment is often found in small entrepreneurial companies driven by the goal of growing quickly, but since there are poor structures and a lack of standards, little has been done to address the situation.
In the virtual workplace, discrimination, and bullying are very difficult to prove and fight against, especially when passive aggressiveness and undermining are promoted by the owner of the company or by the managers. The absence of practices to professionally assess abuses is often hidden behind a superficially friendly atmosphere, masking situations of serious mistreatment.
The inability of owners from unstructured companies to handle their whims and egos and properly address these issues results in unfair treatment. Employees struggle in this toxic work environment.
A “dominant culture” is one that has established its own norms, values, and preferences according to the owner’s mindset and as the standard for an entire group of people. Preferences and norms are imposed regardless of whether they contradict what is usual for other members of the group. The group tends to accept and adopt these behaviours, even if often these are unfair or contradictory. In small entrepreneurial companies, the dominant culture is the result of a limited mindset and a self-centered attitude that centers on the personal whims of the founder of the company.
Before the pandemic, the group most likely to be responsible for workplace bullying was managers, who were accountable for 40% of all incidents according to a January 2020 study from The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). In 2021, The Workplace Bullying Institute survey found that the same held true for remote work, with managers responsible for 47% of reported bullying.
Ego clashes at the workplace are detrimental to the organization, employee morale, and group dynamics, and there is often a fine line between self-respect and ego. When egos surface at the workplace, leaders cannot sit on the fence and do nothing to control the situation or prevent it from escalating further. Often entrepreneur companies focused on the owner’s personal wishes act as tyrannical workplaces that dismiss anyone who doesn’t align with the one way to do things.
It’s interesting how those with big egos tend to warp the meaning of the words “we”, “team” and “teamwork”, and to mean “I, me,” and “mine.” This is why it’s good practice to welcome a wide spectrum of views and emphasize group efforts and not individual victories.
A 2017 study by Harvard Business Review found that 52% of 1153 polled remote workers felt they were being excluded from important decisions and felt harassed, mistreated by managers, and ganged up on by colleagues.
Refers to a situation where two different sets of principles, rules, or expectations are applied to different people, even though they are performing the same or similar work. Also, it refers to promoting values and ethics that later are not respected by management. According to Organizational Leadership and Effectiveness Susan Vroman, if the owner and the managers have different rules than the employees, the company will lose trust.
Implicit biases may cause some individuals to receive preferential treatment over more experienced colleagues. For example, they may receive learning and development opportunities, promotions, raises, or special projects. This is not only bad for developing future company leadership, but it can also breed resentment, hurt your company image, and cause top-notch employees to quit, thereby increasing your turnover.
Remote bullying and unequal treatment can not only be humiliating and demotivating but can also intensify feelings of disconnect from the team as a whole.
In fact, some remote colleagues might not even be aware there is a problem. “Bullying behaviours are less likely to be spotted in the digital workplace,” says Priyanka Sharma, organizational psychologist and founder of workplace learning consultancy Mindtrail, based in London.
Lack of intervention can leave the targeted worker feeling their teammates endorse bullying behaviour, even if that is not the case. And after an incident, remote workspaces offer less opportunity for an informal chat with colleagues to discuss what happened.
The term mansplaining was first popularized by Rebecca Solnit in her 2008 essay, Men Explain Things to Me. Mansplaining is a portmanteau combining “man” and “explain” that refers to a man providing an unrequested explanation to a woman. It is characterized by the confidence of the speaker, a condescending tone, an interjection or interruption, and the underlying assumption that the target has no prior knowledge of the subject.
The 2022 Workplace Equality Survey also found that almost three in four workers have experienced some form of discrimination in their workplace, a 54% increase from last year’s findings. The survey also flagged that “virtual bullying” is on the rise – and warned that the vast majority fear that a glass ceiling exists for women.
“The big lesson we have learned is that people will harass people and be hostile to people no matter what the environment — they will find a way,” Ellen Pao, chief executive of Project Include.
When you’ve been treated unfairly because of who you are or how you’re perceived, you’ve been discriminated against, and this creates a hostile environment.
The onus is on organizations and owners to make sure they have structures in place to handle discrimination effectively, educate themselves to prevent biased views and egocentrism that will lead to a toxic work environment, manage remote bullying, including meaningful communication and clear pathways for remote employees to report incidents, and assurances that they will be handled correctly – especially when managers are the bullies. This requires a proactive approach and, in some cases, a deeper understanding of the subtle ways remote bullying and discrimination in virtual workplaces can manifest.