As you may have noticed in your own experience or in the news, social media can be a very ugly place, filled with trolls and harassment. As a longtime social media user, I've seen thousands of hateful comments no doubt left in the comfort of somebody's home, behind a screen.

This type of bullying obviously feels free from accountability. It's doubtful many of their comments could ever be shared in person. Unfortunately, lack of face-to-face contact may cause similar bad behavior to spill over to the virtual workplace.

According to a 2017 national workplace survey, almost 20 percent of American workers say they've experienced bullying. This type of behavior includes verbal and written abuse, humiliation, threats and intimidation, even work sabotage.

Bullying can impact mental health, motivation, and job satisfaction. What's the etiquette in your workplace? Realizing that the atmosphere needs to change is the first step toward a happier environment. What's more, ensuring a safe environment is critical to your company's success.

Here's how to leverage a new workplace etiquette that creates a safe and comfortable environment for virtual team members and office staff.

1. Discuss bullying and its implications.

A good place to start shaping etiquette in the remote workspace is through a conversation about current virtual bad behaviors and how they can affect all employees.

There is a chance that not everyone realizes what behaviors define virtual bullying. And, even if they do, this discussion is a way to formally call out that behavior as something your company considers unacceptable.

The discussion should also focus on how to be positive and empathetic toward one another. You want the team to develop the emotional intelligence to treat one another with kindness.

2. Develop and manage an open environment.

Use this initial discussion on virtual bullying as the platform to build an open culture. This is where remote and office workers can ask questions or discuss how they felt about certain comments or instances where they felt their well-being was being threatened or harmed.

You can do this by letting the team know that they can speak confidentially about such issues. Offer a dedicated email address and process to handle these communication needs.

3. Think before sending.

We live and work in an instant gratification society where it's easy to hit the send button without thinking. Combining this with a lack of in-person interaction can lead to a harmful situation that may feel like bullying. You may think apologizing after sending an email may make up for the offense. However, you've already become the bully and the damage is already done.

Before writing or messaging someone in the heat of the moment, stop and wait, reread and reflect. Would you say this in person, or would you be able to keep your emotions in check? Thinking about this may require extra time, but it's better than trying to repair the relationship later.

A valuable strategy I've implemented in these situations is to have a colleague read the message. I ask their input on how to phrase the message I'd like to get across. This has saved me many times from my more emotional moments. A person removed from the emotion of the situation can often suggest more appropriate ways to make your point clear.

4. Create a formal policy against bullying.

Many employees may not clearly understand what is rude or cruel in terms of virtual behavior. So, along with a conversation (as mentioned in No. 1), a formal policy will help to modify behavior. It should detail what the company considers inappropriate, and also sends the message that the company does not tolerate any type of bullying.

The policy should list how to use online channels and what to avoid. This may include things like sending jokes or memes that are political in nature or attacking anyone's values. After that, the policy should state that it's wrong to use threatening language or demean people online directly or through indirect communication like a social media post.  

5. Model the ideal etiquette.

To ensure everyone in your organization follows a culture of kindness, inclusiveness, and empathy, go beyond what's in writing. The management team will need to model the right behavior so that employees understand what polite, thoughtful behavior looks and feels like.

Leading by example shows that the organization believes that workplace etiquette is important regardless of whether it involves face-to-face or virtual interaction. Follow the same policies about online behavior across all types of channels. Take those opportunities to extend kindness and positive content. Above all, find ways to highlight the differences that make each employee, including the remote team, special and integral to the company's success.

Published on: Jun 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.