For decades, famed Broadway producer Scott Rudin allegedly threatened, verbally abused and threw objects at people who worked for him. His projectiles of choice, according to The New York Times, apparently included a stapler and a baked potato.

Even so, the newspaper noted, he “continued to thrive in an entertainment industry with a long history of tolerating poor behavior by people who produce acclaimed art.”

Portrait of Bart Waldeck

Bart Waldeck, Tango Analytics’ chief marketing officer

At least that was the case before exposés in The Hollywood Reporter and other media called out his misbehavior, after which he agreed to disengage from “active participation” in his projects.

While in-office work was necessary to support Rudin’s potato throwing, the shift to remote work hasn’t deterred workplace bullies. Indeed, while the pandemic forced many organizations to pause office life, bullying has increasingly moved online — with a vengeance.

A survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) conducted in January 2021 found that 30 percent of workers reported being bullied, compared with 17 percent in 2017. In addition, 43 percent or remote workers said they experienced “repeated mistreatment: abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating or humiliating; work sabotage or verbal abuse.”

The self-declared number of bullies represents about 6.6 million individuals in the U.S., according to the WBI. Rather than curb bullying, the remote-work revolution has emboldened these bullies, it said.

“I think it’s the depersonalization of the whole thing,” said Dr. Gary Namie, WBI’s executive director, referring to remote work. “Not that bullying didn’t happen face to face. Of course, it did. But with the remote workforce, it makes it much easier to discount people now that they’re nothing but images on a screen.”

U.K. insurance company BUPA came to a similar conclusion in a survey of 4,000 workers released in May, which found that cases of bullying nearly doubled from 2019 levels (14 percent of survey respondents in 2019, which increased to 26 percent in 2021), before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Difficult to prove in the workplace

According to BUPA, the reasons for online workplace bullying vary. For example, workers can feel isolated from their colleagues at a remote location, making them vulnerable to mistreatment. They also may not know whom to contact to discuss personal issues or health concerns.

“A change in work levels can also impact employees’ expectations and feelings of security in the workplace,” BUPA said in the report. “Both an increase and decrease in work levels can leave employees feeling targeted. For example, employees working from home may work longer hours due to losing their daily commute to the workplace. We’ve seen this in some of the most under-pressure sectors, with those working in education, and transport, and logistics most likely to report cases of bullying.”

Still, in the U.S., proving bullying in the workplace can be difficult because it often comes down to one person’s word against another’s.

Bullying isn’t illegal under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act unless the targets are members of a protected class, such as race, national origin or sexual orientation, according to the National Workplace Bullying Coalition.

In addition, bullying targets also need to prove the intentional infliction of emotional distress is related to a worker’s membership in a protected class.

Closing loopholes with statutes

The Society of Human Resources Management found that one in five workers had quit their jobs because of a toxic workplace, costing employers $223 billion over the last five years.

Anti-bullying advocates are pushing states to pass the Dignity at Work Act to close the loopholes that allow harassers to escape punishment.

Jerry Carbo, president of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition, says that more and more industrialized countries have statutes addressing workplace bullying.

“They are expanding, and we see those [statutes] in Canada, Australia, the U.K., Sweden, Belgium, Germany and several other industrialized countries,” he said. “Still, here in the U.S., we’re left to fend for ourselves.”

To make matters worse for bullying victims, complaining about bullying to human resources or a manager often is counterproductive because bullies then retaliate against their targets, according to Dr. Carol Suskind, a board member of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition.

Bullying victims are “either transferred or fired … or they feel like they have to quit,” Suskind said. ”There are times when cases are prosecuted, but it’s tough to find a lawyer to do it, and it’s very expensive.”

How employers can help

There are, however, steps that organizations can take to empower the victims of such acts, experts say.

Virginia employment attorney Broderick C. Dunn urges employers to update their employment policies to explicitly state that unacceptable conduct at the office, such as bullying and sexual harassment, isn’t allowed in a virtual environment.

In addition, organizations should “limit one-on-one video conferences between employees” and  “make sure that your virtual meetings are secure to prevent ‘Zoom bombers’ [uninvited Zoom participants who hijack meetings and share racist and pornographic material],” Dunn wrote last year in a blog post.

Businesses also should closely monitor employees’ electronic communications to ensure that company policies are not violated, he said.

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