Bullying and harassment during Covid-19: Surely not?

Blog posts

18 May 2020

Professor LewisGuest blog: Duncan Lewis, Director of Longbow Associates and formerly Professor of Management at Plymouth University 

During the Covid-19 crisis, we will be opening up our blogs to guest contributors. These blogs are intended to broaden the debate and discussion on how public policy, employers and civil society can respond.  Needless to say, the views will be those of the authors themselves rather than of IES.  If you’d like to contribute a blog, then please email IES Senior Communications Officer: Steve O'Rourke

About the author 
Duncan Lewis is a retired Professor of Management at Plymouth University and former Acas Professor at the University of Glamorgan.  He runs a small specialist consultancy, Longbow Associates Ltd, helping organisations deal with bullying, harassment and discrimination issues.

One might assume, rightly or wrongly, that bullying and harassment may take a back seat during this Covid-19 pandemic. With many people either locked down or working from home, the opportunities to mistreat each other with disrespectful and uncivil behaviours, whether face-to-face or at a distance, is severely diminished. Yet, in some quarters, such as health and social care, policing/blue-light services supermarkets etc, the pressures of work have been ramped up considerably. The expectation that such services will continue, undiminished, with staff stoically driven because we clap for them on Thursdays at 8pm, is rather naïve.

Work intensification is a well-known driver of bullying behaviours as people strive to do more with less resources against targets that are intensified. Add in a heavy dose of change via new colleagues covering for those who are sick, new ways of working and daily changing rules and regulations, and the recipe for bullying brews nicely. If we then think about the lack of social support for those working at home, juggling childcare and home-schooling with a partner doing the same, we see the ingredients for the perfect storm forming.

Management, and the act of managing and providing support, are well known as both enablers and disablers of bullying. Managing with emotional intelligence disables situations before they might become bullying. Yet, how does one manage either at a distance, or in an organisation faced with unprecedented uncertainty, change and pressure? Managing actually changes very little, the act of managing remains undiminished; it is its modus operandi that changes.

For those managing at a distance, face-to-face encounters are replaced by written forms such as email, WhatsApp/Social Media, text communications or via, telephone and on-line Zoom/Skype/Teams/Google Hangouts encounters. Whilst some of this may be one-to-one engagements, others will be team-based. Regardless of which, managing with empathy and support is more important than ever. Checking in with each member of a team individually must be the mantra – we are seeing this in the general population where our inabilities to meet and check on each other’s well-being is curtailed, forcing us to communicate in other ways.

For managers, now is the time for more contact not less. But a cautionary note, checking in on well-being is not the same as checking in on performance. Those suddenly finding themselves working from home will genuinely feel supported by a call asking how they are coping and whether they need any support, whereas telephone calls at odd hours of the day that come across as disingenuous can easily feel like staff are being checked up on. Managers take heed – checking in and promising actions but failing to deliver will quickly chip away at staff goodwill and damage long term trust. 

Managers still working in their normal workplaces but under new working conditions also need to exercise emotional intelligence but in slightly different ways. It is no longer possible to put a friendly arm around a shoulder or to shake hands on saying a job is well done. Instead, expressing thanks for good works still needs saying but is perhaps communicated using a range of ways; writing an email of thanks can bolster the verbal ‘thank you’ said earlier, or copying in the CEO or HR Director and saying you are nominating someone for employee of the month or for outstanding service can go a long way in lifting spirits when someone feels under pressure. 

It is also important that managers take time to reiterate to their teams the importance of team cohesion. How we support each other during these most difficult of times has never been more important and none of us knows how each other might be reacting after 8 weeks of lockdown or working from home. As Stephen Bevan posted in his IES blog of April 2nd, musculoskeletal complaints may well increase as people lose their normal workplace interactions of a chat at the kettle or over lunch, instead being welded to their keyboards and screens.

Similarly, the office prankster may be very vulnerable without their audience or the shy, quiet worker may now be bereft with mental health challenges brought on by isolation. Knowing your team and their vulnerabilities is now vital. Checking in weekly with each team member has to be the mantra and encouraging colleagues to talk to each other and to their manager, shows genuine care and compassion. Furthermore, reminding colleagues of all available channels of support from occupational health to counselling and HR support is well-worth regularly reiterating. And do not forget, the managerial burden can be a heavy one, so buddy-up with fellow managers and share your management experiences at this time.

It will also be necessary for managers to keep a weather-eye out for their own communications and of those of their team. Written comms become particularly critical as we each lose the non-verbal cues of body language and eye contact. It is very easy to send a less than polite email when under pressure/stress or to make a snide comment on a WhatsApp group chat or other social media platform. Early intervention by a manager is absolutely key and if it is the manager themselves who has crossed a moral boundary, hold your hands up and say sorry – but mean it. If it is one of your team, remind them (politely) to be courteous and get them to post a private apology, or even a group one if their message was to the collective team. Being vigilant to poor acts of communication can save huge amounts of grief and gathering storms in the long run. Minor acts of incivility can wound some people acutely and memories run deep.

Finally, bullying and harassment are grounded in acts of power and control. These are not normal times and the mechanisms of normal power and control may be diminished but are replaced by other means. Look out for the warning signs and do not assume that Covid-19 means bullying and harassment have gone away, they have not.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.