Upward Bullying – the Rise of the Remote Working “Bully” 5 tips all Employers need to know

Remote working has seen an increase in Upward Bullying

The pandemic has led to a number of changes in the workplace – words such as workplace flexibility, working from home, remote working, Zoom, Teams, virtual meeting are now common lexicon of the modern workplace.  A number of clients recently have had to deal with Upward Bullying – a trend that has been on the rise but the new workplace has provided further difficulties where many Employers are now dealing with a power shift leading to managers and “bosses” being bullied by their subordinates.

Examples of Upward Bullying Behaviour

For 2021 alone our firm has advised on the following incidents:

  • An employee constantly “multi-tasking” during remote meetings – this included being online reading news articles and chatting on Facebook messenger
  • A middle manager deliberately leaving her manager out of invitations to teams meetings on the basis that she had “forgotten” in a veiled attempt at undermining her authority and questioning her competency
  • A secretary organising “zoom lunches” and deliberately leaving out more senior employees on the basis that they were relatively new starters and didn’t want to put the effort in to “connect with them” right now
  • An Executive had difficulty in managing his salesperson who complained that she felt she was being talked down to when discussing KPIs (in practical terms not being met) and she felt “anxious” and “stressed” as a result and didn’t want to work with the Executive any longer
  • An employee deliberately missing internal meetings with his manager on a regular basis
  • An employee joining zoom meetings that they were told not be involved in and continued to “talk over” his manager
  • A manager was accused of sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour when he mentioned to his younger employee that the pyjamas she was wearing in the teams meeting was inappropriate for the workplace
  • A HR manager was accused of sexual harassment whilst he was undertaking a show cause process (remotely) with an employee due to sarcastic remarks made by the HR Manager during their initial discussions

What is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as:

  • Repeated behaviour; and
  • The behaviour is unreasonable towards a worker or group of workers; and
  • It creates a risk to health and safety.

There is a plethora of content around workplace behaviour describing everything from “interceptor” behaviour, exercising your mental muscle when dealing with stress, self command of one’s emotions and obtaining sage advice from the employee’s perspective.  However, the concept of upward bullying has been left largely unattended.

In our past article The Rise Of Upward Bullying: How Employers Can Protect Themselves From Being Bullied By Employees we explored a case that we worked on at the time which involved blackmail an excerpt of this article is below:

The employee in question was given access to financial documents and quickly realised that certain members of staff were paid higher than her. The employee started questioning these staff members about their pay and “why they deserved it”.

The employee also confronted management and threatened to release information about staff pay company-wide if she wasn’t given an immediate pay rise and also threatened to quit during a busy financial period of the company.

The action taken required a number of steps including:

  • Limiting her access to confidential information
  • Reminding her about the confidential information clauses contained in her employment contract
  • Talking to the staff members affected – and taking complaints if required
  • Sending a show cause letter to the employee for breaches of the employment contract and actions considered as misconduct
  • Having the employee go on gardening leave during this period

What’s different with remote working?

The ability for managers and employers to set the tone of the culture in the workplace through office layout, ping pong tables and Friday afternoon drinks are now more limited.  In practical terms, geographical isolation can lead to ineffective or at the very least delayed reasonable management action.

As such, HR and Employers need to reconsider bullying behaviour in the context of remote working.

5 Tips to prevent and handle Upward Bullying in a Remote Working Environment

  1. Duty of Care: the Employer has a duty of care under workplace health and safety legislation to ensure a manager and supervisor are also protected from health and safety risks.  Even if an allegation is made the manager or supervisor should not be “cast aside” a proper investigation should take place to ensure risk and liability for the employer is mitigated (we also covered this in a previous article on upward bullying)
  2. Remote working policy: Remote working requires a policy which at least sets out standards and expectations for remote working. In particular, you will want to address contact times, availability, dress codes and reinforcing that working from home still means it is a workplace
  3. Reinforce a code of conduct: Avoiding ambiguity in a remote working environment may require either reinforcing or redrafting your code of conduct – in practical terms reminding employees that undermining, “white anting” and sexual harassment and bullying will not be tolerated.   
  4. Clear Communication: The remote work environment can be static and overly formal.  An open door policy may be difficult to implement in this environment. Clear communication is essential and chain of command should still be established.  Without clarity and the boundaries you will find a rise in sick leave, complaints, missed meetings and underperformance.
  5. Consider training for management staff: Remote management may well require a different skill set or at least organisational thinking. Consider training management teams on how to handle bullying behaviour – the NB Lawyers – lawyers for employers team have rolled out a number of training sessions for management and executive teams on this particular topic.

If you want to implement protections for your supervisors and managers against upward bullying get in touch with NB Lawyers – Lawyers for Employers – we undertake and offer an obligation free consultation.  Reach out via [email protected] or +61 (07) 3876 5111 to book an appointment.

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Written By 

Jonathan Mamaril 


NB Lawyers – Lawyers for Employers 

[email protected] 

+61 (07) 3876 5111