If the coronavirus crisis was the darkest of clouds, the silver lining was that the fallout accelerated countless technologies, spurred working trends, and shifted societal norms. And now there is further cause for celebration: A new study has found the last three years were increasingly tough on alleged workplace bullies.
Ethisphere’s 2023 Ethical Insights Report, published in January and based on the responses of 2 million employees globally, suggested bullying was being called out at an unprecedented rate. Before the pandemic, 20% of respondents stated they had observed bullying at work, while 33% of respondents did after Covid-19 arrived, according to the study.
Moreover, the research indicated Gen Zers’ lower tolerance for bullying – compared to other generations – was making a massive difference.
Of the 26 other types of misconduct tracked by Ethisphere – a firm which defines and measures corporate ethical standards – only five increased in the same period. But, aside from bullying, none more than 1.1% (insider trading, and violation of health-and-safety policies).
“Ethisphere has been tracking culture data for years, and the bullying data point was definitely one that stood out to us,” said Doug Allen, vp of data strategy. “Typically, we do not see causes of reported misconduct moving very much, but this increase was dramatic.” Indeed, the other types of misconduct moved no more “than the margin of error.”
Could it be people are more sensitive to bullying in the wake of the MeToo and Black Lives Matters movements and, therefore, more willing to stand up for themselves and others? “Gen Z – those who are observing bullying the most – grew up in a post-9/11 era where gun violence in schools was more frequent [in the U.S.] and the mantra of ‘see something, say something’ became engrained in day-to-day life,” suggested Allen.
Stand up for your rights
Alexandra Farmer, head of team and solicitor at employment law and HR consultancy firm WorkNest, headquartered in Northwest England, concurred that Gen Z members were more likely to report bullying from her experience. “We do see a lot of complaints from Gen Zers, and I could conclude they have a lower tolerance for bullying and conflict and difficult conversations in general,” she said.
Maybe, Farmer hinted, a lack of sugar-coated assessments, poor recognition of good work, or mishandled responses by increasingly pressurized managers are aggravating life for Gen Zers, leading some to misconstrue the experience as something more sinister. She had seen “more advice queries regarding complaints from employees about how they are being managed and them feeling that the receiving of workplace feedback is bullying and victimization.”
She developed this point and added: “People have never been as ‘aware’ of their rights, and there is a new feeling of ‘entitlement’ among some employees I don’t believe we’d have faced ten years ago.”
Perhaps the rise in entitlement is being displayed in other ways. Somewhat contradictorily, the Ethisphere data found that Gen Zers were less likely to report other forms of misconduct. “The most common reasons [for this silence] were because they didn’t think corrective action would be taken, they feared retaliation, or they feared it would somehow hurt the reputation of their team or their colleagues,” according to Allen.
Notwithstanding the surge in bullying claims, Gen Zers’ inaction about other misconduct – especially fraud, and instances of retaliation if a claim had been made – came down to “a simple truth,” added Allen. “The younger the employee, the less faith they have in the system, and the more they fear retaliation for raising their hand.”
It is here where immediate managers matter, added Allen. They have a “crucial role” in educating younger team members about what is deemed unacceptable and how to report such behavior.
Psychological safety needed
Dr. Holly Andrews, an associate professor in coaching and behavioral change at Henley Business School in the U.K., had another theory. “Gen Zers change jobs more frequently, so their response to misconduct may be to switch jobs rather than report it,” she said.
Regardless, the advent of remote and hybrid working has made bullying specifically harder to spot, said Louise Campbell, head of learning and development at recruitment firm Robert Walters U.K. “The typical signs of toxic working relationships are not so obvious and have become more challenging to recognize and, as a result, manage.”
Dr. Andrews continued this theme. “If people are meeting one-to-one online, nobody else can see this or what goes on, so there is the danger that obvious bullying behaviors can occur with no witnesses,” she said.
Conversely, more subtle acts of bullying – for example, exclusion, ignoring, or gossiping about people behind their back – could also “be easily facilitated when working remotely,” added Dr. Andrews.
WorkNest’s Farmer said grievances raised by remote or hybrid workers often built up over time and could be caused by tiny, almost invisible slights. “Sometimes it is just interpretation,” she said. “For instance, email exchanges where someone feels the tone isn’t appropriate.”
Creating an environment of “psychological safety” within an organization, complete with feedback and whistle-blowing processes, is vital in 2023, argued Campbell. “Let employees know there is a safe space for them to come forward and call out issues impacting their work without fear of repercussion,” she said. “You will never know everything that goes on in your workplace, so having somewhere where people feel that they will be heard and valued is the first step.”
Another important step would be to firm up and articulate an “anti-bullying policy,” said Campbell. “Clearly state that toxic behavior will not be tolerated, where to go if someone needs help, and likely repercussions for those found guilty.”
Campbell concluded that to create a successful workplace environment, whether in-person or remotely, “all employees must feel confident to call out unfair behavior” and that a “zero-tolerance attitude towards bullying” should be “a foundational aspect of company culture.”