Workplace bullying has skyrocketed, and remote work might be partially to blame

January 18, 2023

Reports of bullying in the workplace have skyrocketed in recent years as companies increasingly embrace remote work, reports Fortune Magazine

Ethisphere, a firm that aims to promote ethical business practices, surveyed over two million respondents globally and found a nearly 13-point jump in reports of workplace bullying compared to pre-pandemic.

The startling increase in reported bullying comes down to two main factors, says Ethisphere CEO Erica Salmon Byrne: the entrance of Gen Z in the workplace and remote work. 

To clarify, Gen Z’s workforce entrance hasn’t caused an increase in bullying. (Gen X and millennials aren’t ganging up on office interns.) But younger professionals are more willing to identify and call out bad behavior in the workplace. 

“Just think about the nomenclature that our kids are being given in school—the upstander versus bystander language,” says Salmon Byrne. “That is language that not every generation has been given.” This cultural shift bears out in the data. Gen Z survey respondents were more likely to indicate that they’ve observed bullying in the office.

But don’t let their gumption fool you. Although young employees are likelier to raise their concerns than other generations, they’re not reporting bullying to higher-ups. Almost 39% of Gen Z employees responded that they chose not to report misconduct when they witnessed it, whereas Gen X was most likely to report the behavior (53%). 

 “The Gen Z population, in particular, is less likely to raise concerns because they don’t have a lot of comfort in the system,” says Salmon Byrne. “They’re not completely convinced that they won’t experience retaliation as a result, and that’s consistent with what we see in EEOC data.” The federal agency has seen an influx of harassment and discrimination reports in the last two years. 

The shift to remote work plays a role in this as well. Virtual work requires employees to rely more heavily on written communication and informal chat functions than in the past, making it easier for people to misconstrue messages. Additionally, the lack of visibility with dispersed work has made misconduct or bullying behavior, in some instances, easier to conceal and harder to witness and report.

So, what does this mean for HR heads? They should be training managers to promote a culture where all employees feel safe speaking up.

“As we think about what the workforce of the future is going to look like, it really comes down to manager preparedness,” Byrne says. “We can publicize hotlines all we want, but people are going to people, so the real key is, are the people they go to prepared?”

Research contact: @FortuneMagazine