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The rise of upward bullying in the new workplace model
January 19, 2021

The pandemic caused a sudden shift to working from home (WFH) for which organisations were neither able to plan nor prepare. As employees moved onto home territory, some have metamorphosed from KITTENS TO TIGERS, leading to a rise of upward bullying in the new workplace model.

Managers and business owners are increasingly sharing horrendous stories of being harassed and white-anted as employees either refuse to work or work only on their own terms. Fortunately, there are things you can do to deal with this behaviour. There’s even an upside to becoming aware of upwards bullying – more about that below.

What is upwards bullying?

Upwards bullying is an intentional, targeted and malicious behaviour. It occurs when staff (either individually or as a group) white-ant, bully or harass their manager or the business owner, undermining their position and causing self-doubt.

Examples of things employees are saying since the rise of WFH include:

  • “I will do as much work as I want to now.”
  • “I’m going to work my own hours.”
  • “I’ll get that report to you in my time.”
  • “You didn’t tell me that.”
  • “You didn’t send me that email.”

If this is happening to you, you’re not alone. You don’t need to fear it or feel ashamed about it. One upside of giving a name to the elephant in the room is being able to do something about it.

How COVID & WFH has rattled the tiger’s cage

Bullying upwards isn’t new. It often occurs when a staff member is promoted internally and their colleagues who missed out systematically sabotage them. As an ongoing issue, it is frequently cloaked in shame and unfair dismissal claims.

There isn’t yet data to prove there’s been an acceleration of upwards bullying since COVID-19 started. However, my experience shows managers and business owners are increasingly being targeted by staff emboldened by the move to home territory. Employees also seem more willing to push back and disobey fair and reasonable requests while hiding behind the COVID excuse.

Bullying upwards appears to be more of a female behaviour directed to other women. Workplace tabby cats have become WFH tigresses. In the words of Katy Perry, they’re saying, “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter….and you’re gonna hear me roar.”

One business owner I know, for example, had a long-term employee quit at the start of COVID and demand all the entitlements owing her be paid. When JobKeeper was announced, she expected to be immediately reinstated.

Pulling the cat’s tail – factors involved in upwards bullying

In research at Griffith University published in 2006, study author Sara Branch noted there appears to be “general agreement in the literature that managers can indeed be the targets of workplace bullying from their staff”. She adds that few studies have explored the prevalence of upwards bullying, but cases are rarely reported.

The literature suggests many factors are involved in causing upwards bullying, including isolation, resentment, difference, and a lack of a clear policy. For example, one study proposed that isolated managers (those without support from their colleagues and senior management) would be more vulnerable to upwards bullying.

Moreover, she notes studies suggest that resentment of a decision made by the manager, or a reaction to their own workplace stress, may explain why this form of bullying starts.

A 2019 study indicated that counterproductive workplace behaviours (such as use of an aggressive tone and body language) and employee disengagement may also play a role.

Findings like these corroborate what we’re seeing with WFH, such as:

Forced restructure

Under normal circumstances, businesses and organisations plan well in advance before making a significant change. However, COVID-19 and the shift to WFH has forced businesses into a rapid restructure with no preparation. The stress this has created for managers and staff can contribute to upwards bullying.

Lack of ownership in the WFH environment

Many businesses still haven’t assessed the WFH environment or helped staff set their home up as a workplace. For example, a couple I know who both work for well-known companies have been working from home since March but not given any equipment or plant. They use their own internet and bought their own office chairs, screens, and keyboards.

Home-schooling has exacerbated the issue, as many women find themselves juggling roles as educator, carer and employee.

The impact of JobKeeper

Furthermore, JobKeeper has led to some staff developing an entitlement mentality. A local business owner I know, for example, went out of her way to accommodate WFH. Since, JobKeeper, her staff have essentially been dictating to her what they will do. She has even discovered them out shopping when they were supposed to be working from home.

You may be wondering why all this matters. For a start, many companies are saying productivity is down at least 20% for anybody that’s working from home. And even before the pandemic, a 2019 Swedish study showed most managers who were victims of upwards bullying chose to leave the organisation.

Taming the tiger – how managers can conquer big cat behaviour

Recognising unacceptable behaviour means you can do something to combat it. Here’s four ways to help you take back control of your workplace and reduce the chances of upwards bullying.

1.      Build a better cage – restructure for the new workplace model

Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, WFH will continue to be a key workplace option and the risk of upwards bullying must be mitigated now. Organisations need to think seriously about restructuring. This doesn’t mean creating a ‘new normal’ from the ‘old normal’. We need to think in terms of a completely new model.  For example, employers may look at the example of Denmark, where employees work a four-day week.

2.      Create new employment contracts

Part of this restructure involves clarifying the tasks and output required of staff. Employers must be very clear about the commitment employees need to give. This will involve creating new employment contracts to replace the old ones, which lack necessary flexibility.

3.      Avoid getting bitten by managing risk

Few businesses have examined WFH from a risk perspective. You need to consider whether the home environment you’re expecting employees to work in is safe – both psychologically and physically.

For example, do they have a surge protector connected to their computer? Is their desk and computer set up ergonomically?

4.      Manage catty conduct with courageous conversations

Most importantly, the new model means needing to have more open discussions with employees, such as checking whether they can commit to a four-day week.

 The biggest upside of this situation is that it provides an opportunity to have courageous conversations.  Business owners and managers need to ask employees to be honest and frank about what they need from you to successfully continue WFH. Explore how best to develop fair and equitable ways they can contribute to your workplace.

Do you know how best to broach difficult workplace conversations? I’m able to help. As a confidante and advisor, I guide managers and business owners to have courageous conversations about tough issues, like sexual harassment, sexism and bullying in the workplace.

My team and I focus on preventing inappropriate workplace behaviours before they become an issue. If you’re experiencing problems, we can address the often-complex underlying causes. Ultimately, we can help you create a safe, trust-based culture that boosts employee morale and your bottom line.