Harassment of remote work employees during the pandemic

Workplace harassment has been in the spotlight in recent years. From the #Metoo movement to greater focus on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion, many employers made creating safe workplaces a priority.

But even as companies have hired consultants and run training programs to accomplish that goal, a global pandemic—and a surge in remote work—changed the game. Few anticipated that teams would be getting a peek inside each other’s homes and gaining access to very intimate details of their lives. And that creates fertile ground for sexual harassment, bullying, and other types of workplace harassment.

“What we were talking about when you’re referring to remote harassment, it’s the language that is used,” Stephen Dwyer, senior vice president and chief legal and operating officer at American Staffing Association. And even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of unlawful harassment in the legal sense, it can certainly be unproductive in terms of microaggressions, bullying, and hostile language, he adds.

A recent survey from TalentLMS and The Purple Campaign found that more than one in four respondents say they have experienced unwelcome sexual behavior online since the start of COVID-19. This communication happened over videoconferencing as well as text messages, email, and internal chat programs.

On this week’s episode of Fast Company‘s The New Way We Work podcast, Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit and co-founder of the diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include, shared that harassment has actually increased during the pandemic and people in marginalized communities reported experiencing more harm. A Project Include survey found that 26% of respondents experienced more gender-based harassment during the pandemic, 10% found more bias related to their race or ethnicity, and 23% of those 50 years and older reported a jump in age-related abuse. There were also increases in hostility experienced by employees.

Recognizing remote harassment

In many ways, workplace harassment in a remote setting is similar to what may occur in an office, with some exceptions, says Jen L’Estrange, founder and managing director of HR outsourcing firm Red Clover.

The word “harassment” is also not synonymous with sexual harassment, although that’s a component. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as: “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”

Harassment becomes unlawful, the EEOC says, when “enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment,” or “the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

And while other behaviors don’t meet the legal definition of harassment—such as bullying or another form of mistreatment—they may still cause damage and create risk. In addition to the negative impact on culture and turnover, a number of states have passed legislation designed to prevent workplace bullying.

L’Estrange says that the challenge in both remote and in-person working environments is defining and addressing the conduct that could constitute harassment. Remote harassment, much like cyber- and other types of bullying, can be just as intimidating as in-person harassment and may take place without bystanders, through one-on-one videoconferences or other electronic communication.

Legal and organizational behavior expert Tracy A. Pearson’s research specialties include employee rights and organizational culture, among other areas. While remote workers don’t experience unwanted physical contact as a form of harassment, she says that remote harassment, mistreatment, and bullying may include undue or excessive criticism, unfair work conditions, suggestive commentary, and microaggressions. And, because your home is typically a safe place and you’re more relaxed, your guard may be down. “When you’re sitting in that sort of environment when somebody does do something to you, it’s something that you feel more deeply,” she says.

With regard to policies, Pearson says, “the organization’s policies and procedures need to center equity. They need to be free from implicit bias and that requires intentional care and including diverse perspectives when they are crafted and implemented.”

Keeping employees safer

While much attention is paid to establishing workplace policies—and they are important—Pearson says that they don’t always stop bad behavior. “Policies don’t prevent any conduct. What they do is they allow an organization to enforce the norms that they’ve determined are or what they’re going to use,” she says. So, a “set it and forget it” approach to policies and workplace harassment and bullying may not do much to protect employees, other than giving them and the organization recourse.

But such foundational elements also set the tone for company culture, Dwyer says. He advocates defining employee behavior expectations in writing, both to raise awareness among employees and to ensure that managers are focused on these issues. “Now we’re in a remote environment, whereby employers are concerned about productivity and other issues, and they may let be less attuned to the harassment issues,” he says. He also advocates workplace harassment and bullying training that is regular and interactive. He says the most effective forms of training have a human element, such as stories from people who have experienced the abuse, to keep them engaged and show the real-world impact.

L’Estrange adds that it’s also important to have a clear investigation process so that employees know what to expect when they come forward. Smaller organizations often don’t have these reporting procedures and processes in place, she says.

To truly make a difference, however, Pearson says that companies need to build cultures that support people coming forward when they are experiencing harassment or other forms of mistreatment. Develop several paths to report the issue so employees have options, depending on the source of the issue. Communicate these options to your teams. It may also be helpful to have resources through an employee assistance program (EAP), where employees can consult with an objective third party and get the support they need. Building a culture that, itself, discourages harassment, bullying, and mistreatment is one of the best protections against these issues.