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Commentary: Remote working is a respite from the office, but toxic workplace behaviours persist

Research finds that toxic workplace behaviours, in the form of antagonistic online behaviour, have persisted online during this pandemic due to a combination of overwork, under-recognition and constant e-mails and messaging, say Carys Chan and Sudong Shang.

BRISBANE: US President Joe Biden’s warning he will fire staff “on the spot” if he hears they have shown “disrespect” to people in their professional conduct was a surprise welcome for most.

Closer to home, in Singapore, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong also touched on the vital importance of their positive working relationships, which they say have helped them co-lead the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce effectively.

All across the world, as offices migrated to homes and work-from-home created a consensus how we’ve worked with each other must improve.


We all know how tricky office dynamics can be. The last thing anyone needs are toxic colleagues and supervisors.

READ: Commentary: Toxic offices dynamics don't disappear just because people work from home

A 2015 study by people management software firm Cornerstone OnDemand on approximately 63,000 employees worldwide found that good employees were 54 per cent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee.

It is no wonder why some have found the physical distance offered by COVID-19 remote working a welcome relief.

But as COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions eased in countries such as Singapore and Australia, more employees are returning to the office, meaning also the disappearance of any cold comfort distance might have afforded.

Working from home (Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt)

Interestingly, research also finds that toxic workplace behaviours, in the form of antagonistic online behaviour, have persisted online during this pandemic due to a combination of overwork, under-recognition and constant e-mails and messaging.

In fact, these might have increased with remote-working, according to CNBC Make It.


In a pre-COVID workplace, it was easy to see what behaviours could be considered toxic: Things like blatant physical or verbal abuse, manipulative actions like belittling, sidelining or luring workers into carrying out misconduct.

These warrant immediate action and most workplaces would have a system in place to catch such staff and manage it quickly. 

Regulatory bodies have also turned a sharper eye and discriminatory practices have been weeded out by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment. 

READ: Commentary: Let's review our assumptions about work-life balance

Inappropriate overtures to women are also no longer tolerated.

Yet some poor corporate culture habits persist and they have shifted online. SteelEye, a regulatory technology and data analytics firm, noted an increase in the use of offensive or hostile language that indicates bullying and harassment in the financial markets during COVID-19 lockdowns.

It is still possible for managers to punish people who express disagreement such as withholding crucial information that is vital for effective work performance. Or for co-workers to gossip through side chats deliberately undermining their bosses and colleagues.

Another common complaint has been about managers who use surveillance software to monitor teams – shockingly, almost half of large companies employ monitoring tools to keep tabs on employees according to a 2018 Gartner survey.

(Photo: Unsplash/CoWomen)

Even a perception of a poor work culture can have negative impact on employee productivity and health. Here is where some level of training on speaking up could have also helped when the onus is as much on employees as it is on supervisors to demonstrate accountability and ownership of their roles.

Studies also show that poor behaviours do not stop at one employee, or when the working day ends.

For example, a group of management scholars in the US found that abusive supervisory behaviours such as unfairly blaming employees for delays or failure tend to “trickle down” from management to middle managers to employees.

Over time, the researchers also found that employees in the same work group engaged in increased negative behaviours such as making fun of their colleagues at work and acting rudely towards their colleagues.

READ: Commentary: Call me a strawberry millennial, but being passionate doesn’t mean I’m willing to be exploited

Nevertheless, some well-intentioned behaviours may also be misconstrued as toxic workplace behaviours, especially when there is a lack of vital visual cues and communication in a remote working environment.

For example, a manager may unintentionally sideline an employee in an online meeting because the latter is experiencing connectivity issues and the discussion has moved on. The employee may subsequently feel undervalued and alienated, potentially leading to conflicts and disputes.

Therefore, remote working may not only have increased the occurrence of toxic workplace behaviours, it has also blurred the distinction between well-intentioned behaviours and bad behaviours.

READ: Commentary: Maybe private-hire drivers and food delivery riders don’t want full-time jobs


Those of us who have been on the receiving end of such behaviours will know that when work becomes a battlefield, you experience negative moods and anxiety and these can affect not just productivity but physical health as well.

So what then can one do?

For a start, managers and employees should schedule regular in-person or online feedback sessions, so that employees can raise any issues and concerns with their managers directly.

Bosses should also strengthen their feedback channels so that employees who are not comfortable raising their concerns with their managers can do so anonymously without fear of retribution.

Enforcing a strict zero-tolerance policy on toxic workplace behaviours, similar to what US President Joe Biden has done, is another way for managers to foster a positive culture and minimise the occurrence of toxic workplace behaviours.

Man standing in front of office buildings. (Photo: Unsplash/Nathaniel Sison)

To reinforce the message, bosses should set clear behavioural expectations at in-person or virtual town hall meetings and organisation-wide e-mails, and model positive workplace communication and behaviours.

In the event that a lot of effort and time have been spent on dealing with the toxic manager or employee but to not avail, calling in a neutral third-party such as a workplace psychologist or an executive coach to prompt both parties to be proactive about improving workplace behaviours and finding a solution may be the best way forward. 

If the toxic behaviour persists, the organisation may need to consider moving the manager or employee to another group where there is better fit or terminate their employment.


In a 24/7 work environment with punishing targets and deadlines, it can be tough to show authentic leadership.

An authentic leader, according to Professor Bruce Avolio at University of Washington’s Foster School of Business demonstrates respect and empathy, but this has to be tempered with being firm and decisive, and having a keen eye to identify employees’ talents and develop them into strengths.

READ: Commentary: Here’s what I won’t miss about working from home

For example, leaders who show too much empathy may come across as being too warm and enthusiastic, leading employees to feel that their leaders are just engaging in impression management.

Authentic leaders are genuine and open when dealing with employees. They do not shy away from tough conversations, or hide their mistakes or weaknesses.

Instead they connect with their employees through direct communication, and show their vulnerabilities to acknowledge that they do not “know it all”.

Most importantly, because authentic leaders are open to differing viewpoints and prioritise organisational goals ahead of their own self-interest, they also create a positive work climate in which employees feel safe to contribute and discuss issues openly.

With the pandemic expected to last for years, the shift to remote working is all but permanent. Managers no longer have regular face-to-face touchpoints with their employees.

That does not mean that toxic workplace behaviours and relationships have magically disappeared. In fact, they may get worse before they get better.

Promoting and sustaining positive workplace relationships and culture have never been more important. 

Listen to human resource experts debate the merits of returning to the office on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

Carys Chan is Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Griffith University’s School of Applied Psychology. Sudong Shang is Lecturer in Human Resources at Griffith Business School.

Source: CNA/cr


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