How to Keep Internet Trolls Out of Remote Workplaces

Jan 24, 2021 · 36 comments
Les (Bethesda)
This is a good piece that adds to my belief that when people blithely say "that we are never going back to the pre-COVID workplace" I say, "not so fast". In person workplaces have much to commend them. Zoom (et al) is not a substitute for real human interactions. A healthy, vibrant, diverse, positive workplace requires actual human beings navigating human relationships. Don't sell off your office space - you will want it back.
Greg (San Diego)
I think some of the behaviors described in this article might happen in slack channels that are not necessarily work related. So, for instance theres a slack channel for what happens in the san diego location, people chat about covid response frmo our government and folks start spouting their political views and things quickly go downhill...
mbl14 (NJ)
I can't imagine what would compel a person to engage in that kind of behavior in their workplace, even if their workplace is completely online. Employees are not hidden, they are logging in with either a company provided email, or at the very least with their full name. Seems like career suicide.
rob (boston)
I have a difficult time believing what is mentioned here is a frequent occurrence in most companies. In larger companies your colleagues name, department and other profile credentials are readily available. There is a wide enough range of people to keep social norms in check. In small companies you all know one another. This feels more like business development for workplace consultants.
Churros (Chi)
I think it's funny that people think their opinion matters (but I went to Catholic school)
Madeline (NJ)
Everything about this article makes me glad I retired. How do workers these days have time for this nonsense and why have none of these bullying, trolling or otherwise obnoxious employees (managers included) figured out that anything you post on these various work channels does not disappear? It stays forever to embarrass you or worse, badly affect your job and career. So now companies are hiring workplace therapists to mediate employee interactions. How about everyone just sticking to work related topics and keeping your opinions regarding anything not work related to themselves. This is what being professional at work means.
Robert_ (Como)
I am a former 10+ year member of BNI (Business Networking International) -- a decades old organization with thousands of local chapters worldwide that meet weekly to exchange business referrals. Like many organizations, BNI went all-remote via Zoom last March. As the months wore on, some of the members (in my experience, mostly right-wingers) became ever more vocal with their toxic political commentary, often by choice of background, avatar, or during the pre-meeting open chat. I left my chapter because of this. I am not alone, either. Online culture seems to free many people of their in-person civility. This is also why I left Nextdoor and Facebook. My life is way more pleasant now without having to deal with these legally adult 4 year-olds.
lkos (nyc)
There is need for trainining in empathy and communicating effectively, this would benefit us all, in addition to the online workplace.
angiev (NYC)
@lkos Absolutely there is. is a tool for that exactly, for schools, for business, and even for a family if need be.
ClaireNYC (NYC)
It's great to worry about online bullying in off-office platforms. What about potential data leaks of client information?
Noah Weinberger (Montreal, QC (former New Yorker))
I am a member of Gen Z. Trolling is a core part of internet culture, and often a rite of passage for teens. Usually, the trolling in innocuous, such as using a bait and switch URL. A good example would be a user claiming the link is for a cute puppy video, only for it to be a rendition of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. Another example would be when “k-pop stans” hijacked a political rally for the previous president in Tulsa, OK, making him assume his rally had more members than it did. This kind of trolling has been a mainstay of internet culture for at least a decade, perhaps even longer. The problem is when the trolling gets personal, and dangerous. In my opinion, as a member of the digital generation, the ideal way to prevent malicious trolling is to have 2 factor authentication on all videoconferencing software, to ensure that only the people who are supposed to be attending the meeting are admitted to the server. This can be especially problematic for teachers, as students will most likely troll their teachers (the innocuous kind) during class. It makes it very difficult to learn like that; and more often than not the teachers are not well versed in computers or internet culture to adequately combat this problem. Trolling will always exist, and in its original form, can even ignite change and positivity in the world. It only becomes a problem when the disruption can cause acute physical ham, or perception of clear and present danger to users.
Vagabond Rambler (Australia)
My recommendation would be for companies to put a policy in place to govern this, and also provide staff with training in this regard.
Ben (Cincinnati)
What workplace allows staff to log in anonymously? Every thing I do in my workplace's online environment it recorded and archived. Even "private" chats and channels. Thus, I keep the gossip to group chats on WhatsApp. ;D
Alexis Graham (Singapore)
I’ve been working with remote teams for years now and I don’t think I’ve ever experience this. I wonder if this article is based on one of those startup tech places where fewer protocols are in place for what is appropriate and inappropriate, I mean we are all adults why should there be something like a time-out, it should end up with an official warning from Human Resources.
Howington (Arkansas)
Since there appears to be no training in office communication via email, thru many hard lessons over the years, I developed my own set of rules for office email: 1. The entire world will read your email without any context. 2. Avoid negative emotion or dismissiveness altogether. Use positive emotion sparingly. 3. Avoid equivocation, for instance, the phrase “I think.” Likewise avoid any ambiguity. Expect anything that can be taken the wrong way to be taken the wrong way. 4. Avoid any attempt at humor, especially subtle humor. 5. Pare your first draft down. Twice. A minimum goal would be to half its original length. Then proof it twice before sending. Email is hard. 6. An email should address one, and only one, subject, which should be cited in the subject line. If you have two subjects, use two email messages. 7. Three emails on a subject means it is time to pick up the phone or walk to someone’s desk. 8. Do not use blind copy. Now I’ve gotten boring.
mbl14 (NJ)
@Howington I agree. However I find the one-three word emails so often used by upper management distasteful. I complete my emails in full sentences and end them like a letter. Yet in my career those higher up go out of their way to use as few words as possible, making their email responses seem flippant, dismissive, and lazy. I can guarantee that in my position, if I did the same, I'd be thought less of. I think emails should follow the same etiquette (more or less) as written correspondence.
Emily (Minneapolis, MN)
If you are seeing more inappropriate communications and people sharing harassing, bullying, or disrespectful behavior - - it is just that - - you are “seeing” it now. It was there and had impacts in the non-remote workplace too. It just wasn’t in writing. It was more subtle and in a way, more dangerous. If you have concerns about your company culture and think that message boards and online communication tools are the reason – think again. And take advantage of the opportunity to address it more openly.
JimBob (Los Angeles)
This isn't a difficult problem, though the solution involves spending some money. It's called "moderation," as in hiring moderators to oversee the flow of digital communications and ensure that civility and productivity are maintained. Some moderation can even be automated (if I say certain words here in the NYT comments section, they're flagged long before a human moderator claps eyes on them). Hiring moderators is still cheaper than all that office space that's no longer needed.
Keen Observer (NM)
Allow 90 seconds for politics before a politics-free day? How about 0 seconds? Politics, along with sex, religion and a host of other subjects, is an inappropriate topic at the work place. And why do employers believe they have to accommodate bad behavior because employees are working from home? This is a reflection of the current belief of so many people, especially among the alt-right, that they have the right to use someone else's platform to voice their opinions. They don't, especially in a work environment. Allowing employees to use workplace technology for inappropriate discussions or comments is just opening floodgates to a river of EEOC lawsuits.
O. (Massachusetts)
@Keen Observer "Politics, along with sex, religion and a host of other subjects, is an inappropriate topic at the work place." Exactly this. Allowing discussion of of any of these topics at the workplace (virtual or otherwise) is a recipe for disaster. Any worthwhile manager should know better, and squash this immediately.
Jonathan (Oronoque)
Ha! It really is the internet that is the problem! Without it, there would be no conspiracy theories, and everyone would still think and act normally. That's just what many wise people have suspected.
DesertRose (Phoenix)
Good manners are never out of style.
E M Dalton (NH)
I’ve worked in globally distributed teams for over 25 years, often working from home. I’ve never encountered the problems described in this article. My best experiences have been with entirely remote teams— when some team members are together in an office and others aren’t, the office dwellers tend to communicate poorly with everyone else. When everyone is remote, generally communications are more thoughtful and productive. I can’t quite see how the issues described in this article would continue for any length of time. And isolating people as “therapy” would prevent those individuals from getting work done, unless the only reason those people are using chat is for non-work conversation. Maybe this article is about purely social channels, not used to actually get work done? This still seems like highly unusual behavior.
Red Ree (San Francisco CA)
@E M Dalton The article's a bit vague on specifics. Which companies are we talking about? What exactly are people saying? At least provide an example with some names changed.
Noley (New England)
Companies can control this, just as they can control unruly, rude, mean or disrespectful employees in a physical workplace. Prohibit avatars, require actual photos of employees to be used in intraoffice communications, require correct grammar and spelling, etc. Put all rules and expectations in writing so all employees know them. Then when employees violate the rules there is legal ground to take action. There will certainly still be employees who still do and say things they shouldn’t, but their IP address is always being captured. And if they are being sly about it and using a different identity while being a jerk, other employees can block them. Also, if they are on a company’s computer, an IT department may have other options, and there may be legal steps, too, depending on the state where the company is located.
Laura (Chicago)
You can’t block people on slack. Also, slack isn’t capturing your IP address. It’s a searchable log of posts, identified by user and their full name. No need for the obfuscation of capturing IP only. It’s hard listening to earlier generations comment on these issues when they are blind to the reality and unclear on the specifics of the technologies at issue. Im 30. I use slack everyday. I am talking to my coworkers as friends all throughout the day in the background and we are most definitely over sharing. There are some channels that are completely focused at over sharing... the channel for moms is the worst one in the company. Constant complaining about the pandemic, jokes about opening a bottle of wine before 10am, frustration about husbands/partners, and attacks on local reopening plans. I am a woman that works at a Fortune 500 tech company
KB (Washington)
@Laura your statement, "It’s hard listening to earlier generations comment on these issues when they are blind to the reality and unclear on the specifics of the technologies at issue." is exactly the sort of biased digital comment that if made at a workplace would cause heartburn for a company's legal department. Biases in the form of assumptions, unconscious or not, that indicate judgment or discrimination on age, etc. are exactly what we collectively should be working to mitigate. There is no indication of the original commenter's age, and even if there were, that comment makes a value judgment based on the person's age.
mbl14 (NJ)
@Laura I personally would never overshare to coworkers, or discuss inappropriate work behavior like drinking on the job. It may seem like everyone is "cool" but you can bet that's far from true and there's always someone waiting in the wings to get that person in trouble. I'm in my thirties by the way, and also a woman.
Houston Houlaw (USA)
My first thought is how we as a society are becoming more infantile with each generation; and I'm not the oldest yet. Secondly, why would a company allow its employees to be signed on anonymously in the first place? We're talking about their workplace, so don't they have to be identifiable, and shouldn't that mean identifiable to everyone? Companies don't allow workers to run around with masks on or otherwise unidentifiable in person.
Per Axel (Richmond, VA)
If you are asked to resign or leave, or offered the "opportunity" to leave or you quit, walk out the door. There is 1 thing that you can not prevent. In our litigious society it is very difficult to state on any letter of recommendation just exactly just how bad or immoral an employee you were, but we CAN STATE we would never hire you again. That 1 sentence is a scarlet letter you will never be able to get away from. The internet remembers stuff like that. And while it does not say what you did or did not do, it says, we would never hire you again. That 1 sentence has destroyed many many peoples careers. And I am sorry to say, it will be written much more often now.
MDCOOKS8 (West Of The Hudson GFY)
So if the productively output of the “remote workforce” has relatively been equivalent to the former “office workforce”, yet issues concerning “workplace politics” appear to be on an increase; then if true, will the new workplace norms eventually have an unintentional adverse impact, that in time may begin to negate the real estate cost savings, because of lawsuits that may arise from the many new sets of challenges a company takes on while working through the pains of the virtual workplace? But there should be more broader concerns of the impacts the virtual workplace brings to all society.
DF (Cambridge, MA)
I believe this article is a bit misguided in implying that the underlings at a workplace are the ones becoming trolls. My boss, a director at very large organization hasn't spoken to me one-on-one in any format (in-person, phone, Zoom, etc) since March 4, 2020. He only has 7 people reporting to him. My only opportunity to speak to anyone is on a weekly team meeting, and I get 1 minute. That's 0.04% of my work week which is spent speaking to others. I've learned very quickly that in order to be heard I have to be extremely blunt and direct. It is not hard to find basic tips on how to manage remote teams. I think more emphasis in the article should be how poorly skilled managers pre-pandemic are floundering during the pandemic, and destroying their workplaces in the process. Managing a remote team isn't hard. But lower-level staff such as myself are discovering that it's not uncommon for the "executive team" to come to the game without even the most rudimentary training. If I'm going to have to manage-up an executive during a crisis period I should be paid appropriately. Perhaps your next article could be about the plethora unskilled bosses and how the pandemic is amplifying their cluelessness?
Houston Houlaw (USA)
@DF: Good points, but the article did point out problems concerning those who act out online can be the persons who do your performance review, in addition to the problem of wrongly-perceived levels of interaction. Seems like a strong manager is more critical than ever to control online meetings even more than in person meetings. Just inconceivable to me how people act online; that they cannot understand the difference between personal online interactions, and business online interactions hint to me that those people are not ready to play at the big table.
DF (Cambridge, MA)
@Houston Houlaw "Good points, but the article did point out problems concerning those who act out online can be the persons who do your performance review," True. And my previous job was for decades at a Fortune 50 company that took reviews seriously by training everyone at all levels on how to do reviews. What I've discovered, however, is that well-done reviews are the exception in most companies. The fear of encountering consequences due to a bad review are way overblown.
Bill Lowenburg (Stroudsburg PA)
I was the Google classroom facilitator at a high school. I retired just in time.
Jerr (NNJ)
Companies that want a culture of respect need to require respect training for everyone; this was always the case even prior to the past four years in which bully behavior was glorified by some. Of course the training has to be backed up by policy with consequences and employees need to see top down respectful behavior as well. The learning organization in which mental models & other assumptions are challenged provides other ways to build a culture of teamwork & collaboration. Still surprised though to see individuals ranting on social media when it’s obvious where they work; reputation is everything!
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