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bullying in the virtual workplace

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COVID restrictions now mean that there is work from home guidance in place where it is possible to accommodate across all three of England’s tiered areas which is likely to last until the spring. After a turbulent start, many employers have now got to grips with having a largely virtual workforce and have adapted to the changes rapidly.

New issues and challenges have faced employers and their workers this year meaning policy and management has had to be adapted. One such issue is bullying and harassment in the (now virtual) workplace and dealing with cyber-bullying.

Bullying in the workplace – The Law

Many people will be aware of the term “bullying and harassment”. Harassment is defined under the Equality Act 2010 as a person engaging in ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic’ and that the conduct has the effect of ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

Protected characteristics include age, sex or sexual orientation, race, religion or belief, disability and gender reassignment.

Bullying does not have a specific legal definition, but this does not mean allegations should be taken less seriously. Incidents of bullying can lead to a range of claims including the employee stating they feel they can no longer work at a company due to its hostility and that they are entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal.


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Andy Boyde – Associate, Employment Law
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What is Cyber-Bullying?

Some employees may ‘hide behind their screens’ and not behave in a manner that is expected by their employer. Cyber-bullying can take a wide range of formats and examples can include frequent interruptions during virtual meetings, offensive comments on social media, micro-managing an employee or excluding employees from meetings or virtual events.

Employers should also be alive to the idea that emails can sometimes make it more difficult to gauge a person’s tone which can lead to a message being misconstrued.

What can employers do to help?

It is important for employers to be proactive in this area to help mitigate the risk of any issues later down the line. It is important to remember that prevention is better than cure. However, where a complaint is lodged, employers should ensure that policies are observed and followed consistently. This may help protect an employer if a claim is ever brought against them, because while you cannot ‘undo’ the bullying or harassment incident, a defence is available if an employer has taken all reasonable steps to protect its workforce.

Examples of steps employers might consider taking include reviewing anti-bullying and harassment policies to ensure they cover cyber-bullying, remind employees of the standards expected of them, encourage employees to report their concerns and consider delivering any training on online bullying.

How can we help?

If you have any queries on the issues raised in this blog or require any employment law advice, please contact our employment team on 0113 322 9222.

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