Although telecommuting is not a new concept, many organizations have been forced to adopt the practice for the first time due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. On top of restructuring day to day practices, employers must consider HR concerns related to remote working, especially how to prevent forms of harassment that are made easy with technology. While the likelihood of workplace physical/sexual assault is limited by telecommuting, new opportunities for harassment arise with limited structure, monitoring, and policies. This article discusses common types of remote workplace harassment and ways to combat this problem.
First, let us consider the reason telecommuting opens the door for new forms of harassment. The Everfi article, “Harassment Prevention in the Remote Work Environment,” cites the fact that the EEOC found that both decentralized workplaces and isolated or remote workspaces are risk factors for harassment. Since many organizations are new to telecommuting, some safety measures and policies may have not yet been established. The resulting disorder and confusion can cause problematic behavior to slip through the cracks. Additionally, remote working creates opportunities for harassment to occur without a witness present. Finally, some argue that the lack of typical office formality and professionalism in the remote working environment may lead to inappropriate or offensive conversations. The Business Insurance article, “Telecommuting puts anti-harassment measures in focus,” by Louise Esola explains that employees may find it acceptable to post distasteful memes and jokes through online communication, even when similar comments would never be allowed in the physical workplace. The article argues that employees should demonstrate the same level of professionalism whether they are working from home or in the office.
If the type of harassment can occur in person, there is likely an equivalent for those who work from home. The availability of email, text, video call, and social media provides many channels for harassment to occur. Examples of virtual harassment include sending explicit images, aggressive, humiliating, or threatening messages, shaming an individual in a group chat or call, purposeful exclusion from companywide communication, sharing inappropriate jokes, and making rude comments on a coworker’s social media page. Clearly, online harassment or cyberbullying is not just a problem that teenagers on social media face! It is alive and well in all types of virtual communities.
The National Cybersecurity Alliance article, “What Happens When Cyberbullies Join the Workforce,” by Kim Albarella, discusses the three most common forms of cyberbullying in the workplace: impersonation, outing, and trolling. Albarella explains that employees use impersonation in online communication with coworkers in order to “confuse them, gain work-related or personal secrets or embarrass them.” Outing is defined as sharing a coworker’s private information with a large group of employees. Examples of outing include forwarding confidential emails, blurting out that a coworker is looking for another job in a virtual meeting, and spreading humiliating photos or comments from a coworker’s private social media account. Finally, trolling is a common form of bullying in which the bully posts mean or passive aggressive comments under or about the victim’s social media post. There is no room for trolling among coworkers whether it occurs on professional or personal social media platforms.
With examples of virtual harassment and cyberbullying in mind, how should employees and organizations work together to protect each other, especially when they cannot be physically together? In the Employer Law Report article, “When your #hashtag is not #humorous: Preventing harassment in a remote working environment,” Jyllian Bradshaw encourages employers to “revisit their company policy regarding workplace harassment.” She explains that since methods of communication have changed due to mandatory telecommuting, policies must be restated to reflect the current situation. Bradshaw also recommends sending employees an email that reminds them to display the same level of professionalism in communication that was expected in the physical workplace. A second takeaway from Bradshaw’s article is the reminder that text-based communication leaves out important tonal and body language cues. What appears to be a harmless joke in person may come off as harassment in text. Employees must consider ways in which their written messages may be interpreted. Restating policies and training employees are two important steps to preventing harassment in the remote workplace.
If an employee is a witness or victim of harassment while telecommuting, he/she should feel empowered to report the situation. Thankfully, emails, photos, and social media comments are easy to save as evidence of harassment! In many cases, victims of workplace (or virtual workplace) harassment do not feel comfortable reporting the situation. They may believe that their complaints would go unaddressed or that they could even face retaliation for filing a report against superiors. In addition to having an “open door policy,” implementing the use of an ethics and compliance hotline, such as Red Flag Reporting, empowers all employees to stand up for themselves and the wellbeing of their organization. With Red Flag Reporting, witnesses and victims of harassment are able to choose their level of anonymity and can even upload evidence such as emails, texts, and images. While there are many challenges to working from home during these unprecedented times, harassment is preventable with proper policies, training, and reporting mechanisms.