Many would assume that workplace harassment doesn’t happen in a remote environment. We may think that if we don’t see each other, such situations don’t occur as often as they would happen in an office setup. Well, that’s actually not true. I’m sure that some of you have faced situations when you received a message or had a video call that left you feeling down or even depressed. You just didn’t understand why as the other person seemed calm, professional and they didn’t do anything in particular. That’s exactly what makes it so difficult in the remote world… We may try to explain to ourselves that something is wrong with us as we’re overreacting or over-interpreting things that haven’t really happened. Right?
You must know that workplace harassment can have many faces. The most basic ones are psychological and verbal. More serious include physical or sexual harassment. In a remote setup, we will primarily deal with the first two that may leave us feeling confused and uncomfortable. Before we dig into details of the most common situations you may be facing, I’d like to share one golden rule with you:
“If something seems to be happening, there’s usually a story behind the story”.
Accidentally on purpose communication that leaves a bad taste
I started my first “serious” job in 2011 when I was still a student. I was hired as an intern in a law firm and I didn’t have much legal knowledge or skills. Despite lacking crucial expertise, my boss asked me to prepare a very complex appeal in a criminal case. This happened on my first day! He expected me to deliver the final document until the end of the day. I did signal that this would be my FIRST TIME of drafting a legal document but he didn’t care. I was supposed to go home, do research and deliver. It’s not hard to guess that what I prepared, wasn’t good at all.
It was past midnight when I received several e-mails with the following words: “I have never seen such a disappointing intern before”, “I thought you were supposed to help me but you made me work longer”, “How could you not know such basic things?”. Needless to say – I was crying the entire night. Today I know that this person was just blaming me for his own frustrations. However, he did call me in the morning with a totally normal voice asking how my evening was. I felt worthless and confused. I wasn’t sure what really happened. All this took place without any office attendance but it made me doubt my potential and skills.
Spotting red flags can be challenging
Exactly two years ago I was participating in a video call with a candidate, that my client (a remote-first company) wanted to hire. Several team members attended this culture-fit meeting to assess whether this person would be suitable for the position. I was leading the meeting as an external consultant. It was the first time in my life when I experienced feeling extremely uncomfortable during a virtual meeting! Everything seemed OK, the candidate was responding to all questions but for some reason, nothing felt right.
A few team members reached out to me afterwards to let me know that they’ve never seen me being so insecure. I later watched the recording and I spotted myself touching my neck all the time – which is literally a sign of stress or anxiety. We evaluated the entire conversation with the team and we found several red flags that signalled passive-aggressive behaviour towards all attendees except the decision maker! I couldn’t stop wondering how such a scenario could even happen.
Another situation that I’ve witnessed happened when I worked 100% remotely a few years ago. My manager seemed super enthusiastic about everything I was doing. He would respond to all my e-mails, phone calls and messages right away. I was working extremely hard to prove my expertise and engagement. Some time later, I accidentally found out that this person would take over all my ideas. I got disappointed even more when I didn’t get any responses to my e-mails for days and nobody invited to crucial meetings anymore. When I tried to talk about it, this individual just ignored me and called a “difficult person”.
Today I know that toxic behaviours, psychological abuse or bullying can affect people in a workplace even if they always work from home. It’s very dangerous as they may not be aware of what’s going on. However, they’ll start spotting performance drops, lack of enthusiasm, severe stress and even depression!
Passive-aggressive writing style
Passive aggression happens when someone indirectly expresses negative feelings. This is one of the reasons, why it’s so difficult to recognise such situations. In an office, we were able to notice the body language of others. Today, when we work remotely we mostly deal with e-mails and Slack or MS Teams messages. Non-verbal communication has started to rule over our daily operations and… it’s very easy to misinterpret it. In fact, statistics prove that we misunderstand over 50% of written communication. If we receive messages with no emotional input, we tend to interpret them negatively.
However, we may sometimes also deal with people who will send us a quite rude message with a smiling eyes emoji. It can be that this individual is willing to confuse us, while pretending to be friendly. The best solution is to just ask by simply addressing it the following way: “I think I’ve noticed that you may not be happy with our collaboration, or am I wrong? or “Moving forward, is there anything that you’re willing to improve in the future?”. Depending on the response, you’ll know. People who try express their intentions in a passive-aggressive way, usually get uncomfortable when you confront them about it.
There’s also another frequent scenario that many people share with me. Someone asks them to do something ASAP so they drop everything and move on immediately. Then, they never receive any response or feedback. They’re literally being ignored and it makes them feel very confused. What’s worse – their manager later takes credit for all their hard work. I’ve seen this happening in “fresh” hybrid teams and companies, where processes and workflows aren’t documented properly. Managers delegate tasks to team members, ask them to deliver and then they take over the results. Then they leave them without any recognition. It’s even worse if they work remotely as other team members acting this way sometimes decide to attend the office so others can perceive them as more engaged.
The power of transparent communication
This may seem easier said than done but if you feel that you’re caught in a vicious circle, there’s just one solution – RUN! Workplace harassment in a remote environment is a sneaky situation and it can ruin your nerves long-term. However, before you make such drastic steps, make sure to have a conversation first. If we don’t see each other on a daily basis, we can easily get stuck within our own assumptions and biases.
It’s crucial to stick to facts and that’s why I always encourage to use the DESC feedback framework for communication purposes. This is very helpful, especially in situations that seem hard to tackle and make us feel uncomfortable. Thanks to it, we can resolve problems, overcome conflicts and increase engagement. “DESC” is an acronym for the following words: describe (the situation), express (the result or emotion), specify (the solution), consequences (conclusion).
Whenever you are about to get ready for a tough conversation, you must be confident.
Always stick to the facts by following simple steps. Let’s check out a simple scenario:
(D) Once again, you’ve expressed that I could do better with my work. This has already happened four times in a row. (E) This makes me feel very insecure about my skills as I’m unsure about your expectations. (S) How exactly do you think I can improve? (C) Ok, we’ve agreed you will share examples so that I can understand what exactly you have in mind.
This way you’ll stick to the point and politely confront the other person. If they’re unable to respond or they’re not willing to get engaged in the conversation but they keep behaving the same way again and again… That may be a sign that it’s not you who is actually having a problem. It may be workplace harassment. The good news is, after using the above mentioned technique you’ll have proof. You can either escalate the situation or move on with your career to a healthier and happier remote workplace.