How to Manage Abusive Conduct While Working Remote

by May 21, 2020

Lately, everyone has been on edge. I know I’ve been feeling a roller coaster of emotions as my team and I have been adjusting to remote work and other external stressors caused by social distancing (parents, you know what I am talking about!).

My stress got me thinking about how many of my coaching clients tend to lash out when they feel anxious or uncomfortable. I’ve found that high stress can lead to an increase in toxic behavior, including abusive conduct, harassment and incivility – and my hunch was confirmed when Google searches for abusive conduct increased 127% last week.

With everything going on, Rebecca and I thought we’d jump into an epic (and long) blog post to share our thoughts and predictions on the dynamic of abusive conduct in this new normal, and some strategies for keeping your workforce civil and safe.

What is Abusive Conduct in the Workplace?

Abusive conduct, or workplace bullying, manifests in a variety of ways. According to California law, abusive conduct is defined as:

“Conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”

I like to point out, though, that abusive conduct doesn’t need it’s own definition. The definition of harassment found on does just fine at describing abusive conduct if you remove the part about protected characteristics (e.g., race, religion, gender, etc). Harassment is unlawful when:

“enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
In other words, the behaviors involved in harassment and abusive conduct are the same. The only difference is who you aim them at.

What Does Abusive Conduct Look Like?

Abusive conduct can be broken into three categories – aggressive communication, humiliation and manipulation.
Aggressive communication may include repeated remarks or insults, and other verbal abusive behavior directed at a particular employee or multiple employees.

Humiliation may include chastising employees in front of others or asking employees questions they couldn’t possibly know the answer to in a group setting.

The final category, manipulation, is easiest to keep under the radar and might include gratuitous sabotage and undermining of others. For example, if a meeting starts at 8am but a coworker tells you it starts at 8:30am, that would be considered a form of manipulative bullying when coupled with other abusive behaviors.

Normally, all three of these categories occur simultaneously. I’ve yet to meet a bullying leader who was only exhibiting one or two of them.

When behaviors like these are not addressed, they can escalate into workplace violence. In fact, I submit to you that aggressive communication is a form of workplace violence.

How to Manage Abusive Conduct While Working Remote

When employees were working in the same office, abusive conduct may have been easier to detect. For example, if a manager was yelling, others might hear it.

I suspect that abusive conduct has become more targeted and under the radar as communication has been limited to emails, one-on-one calls and group meetings. Thus, those who aren’t experiencing the behavior firsthand wouldn’t know it was happening unless the target spoke up. Not only does this empower aggressors, it also makes being an ally to targets much more difficult.

In addition, employers may have tunnel vision around physical safety, which could cause them to miss indicators of the people stuff, like a toxic work environment. During these challenging times, keep in mind that employee safety also involves protecting the workforce against toxicity like abusive conduct and other negative behaviors.
Here are a few tips to help with managing abusive conduct while employees are working remotely:

  • Establish what abusive conduct (workplace bullying) is. Often employees fail to acknowledge behavior like bullying and harassment because they really don’t know how to define them. One way to ensure targets and witnesses come forward is to educate them on exactly what constitutes abusive conduct. Sure, your harassment prevention training mentions it if you’re in California, but that’s not enough to help people really understand the confusing and lonely journey of being a target. Also share some examples of what abusive conduct looks like in a remote work environment or create new ground rules for communicating while working from home.
  • Reestablish a protocol for reporting abusive conduct. Before, you might have encouraged employees to walk over to HR and discuss the issues they are facing immediately after they occur. Now, in a remote work environment, this system might need to be redefined. Employees may need to schedule time with HR since they can’t see if anyone is in the office or not, for example. You might also encourage employees to report behavior via a video conference since body language and nonverbal cues are lost over the phone.
  • Empower individuals. Now that there may be few to no witnesses, employees need to feel comfortable coming forward on their own and standing up for themselves. When targets fail to speak up, the power difference between the bully and others slowly begins to increase – as does the severity of the behavior. Give employees tools to speak up for themselves in the moment. Check out my LI course on Workplace Bullying for some tips to share with your workforce (or share the course with them!).
  • Establish a buddy system. Implementing a buddy system during a crisis can help employees in a variety of ways. Buddies can support one another and listen to each other’s concerns around work, family and whatever else they feel comfortable with. Having a buddy may also encourage targets to share if they’ve been on the receiving end of negative behavior. Make sure to allow employees to choose their buddies to ensure they are comfortable being open and honest about their feelings.
  • Make room for emotions at work.Employees have a lot on their mind right now, including job security. So they may be hesitant to speak up in fear that creating waves could cause them to be targeted during layoffs or furloughs. Send employees the message that it’s okay to be in distress, especially with everything going on. Also let them know that negative behavior, no matter the circumstance, is unacceptable – and you want to know about it. 
  • Train managers to recognize the warning signs of toxic behavior. With remote work allowing abusive conduct to fly even more under the radar, it’s important managers know how to recognize when employees are in distress. In addition, they should be trained on how to properly address poor behavior and foster a culture of civility and collaboration. 
  • Identify ways to help employees relieve stress. Stress and anxiety are fuel for negative behavior. Even the most reserved employees may exhibit incivility or unprofessionalism as they cope with the stressful challenges they are currently facing. Finding ways to reduce their stress can help reduce the risk of negativity seeping into the remote work environment. Mental health is important now more than ever. 

Employers are responsible for safeguarding the mental and physical safety of their employees no matter the circumstance. It’s vital that leaders remember that maintaining a positive culture matters and recognize that abusive conduct can still occur outside of a shared work space. In fact, it can even be much worse.

Taking a few small steps can make a world of difference for your employees and your organization.

Rebecca Del Secco, Consultant
Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO

P.S.We are hosting a FREE webinar on June 16th at 10am PST titled Beyond Safety in Your Reopening-the-Workplace Plan: Reopening the Workplace With Compassion and Workplace Culture in Mind – and would love to see you there.  As culture experts, we want to make sure you are prepared to safeguard your culture while also maintaining employee safety, as you try to get your workplace back to normal. Check out more on what will be covered here at this link

About Catherine Mattice Zundel

Catherine Mattice Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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