Even as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, many organizations have continued with remote work, given its many benefits. Although many were optimistic that working remotely would reduce workplace harassment, this has not been the case. While some forms of harassment have decreased, given the physical distance between members of an organization, others have remained prevalent. In the following, we will discuss harassment in the remote workplace, what it looks like, why it occurs, and how to prevent it.
The U.S. 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 medical history).” The EEOC states, “Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Harassment can occur in many forms. Physical threats or assaults, slurs, intimidation, ridicule, offensive images, and name calling can all escalate to the point of unlawful harassment. Aside from physical assaults, all of these forms of harassment can occur remotely.
Although research is limited, two recent surveys have indicated that harassment continues to plague the remote workplace. In a survey by The Purple Campaign, a nonprofit that combats workplace harassment, around 25% of respondents indicated that they have experienced an increase in gender-based harassment since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Additionally, a survey by Project Include, a nonprofit promoting diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, found in increase in gender, race, and age-based harassment since the start of Covid-19 lockdowns.
The New York Times article, “Workplace Harassment in the Age of Remote Work,” by Leah Fessler, offers valuable insight into this issue. The article explains that remote work has actually made it easier for some forms of harassment to occur. Fessler writes, “What surprised many was the extent to which remote work made it easier for some employees to exert power over those who were comparatively vulnerable. That’s because the channels through which remote work occurs – text, phone, video – are often unmonitored, unrecorded, or occur outside employer-sponsored platforms.” For some perpetrators, remote work has lowered the real or perceived likelihood of being caught, emboldening them to harass others.
The article also claims that the shift to remote work has increased the informality of workplace communication and has decreased the separation of work and personal life, exacerbating harassment. Fessler writes, “Remote work can also crack open aspects of identity – religious or cultural background or sexual orientation, for example – an employee may have preferred to keep private.” This can lead to problems when perpetrators of harassment comment inappropriately on one’s identity, even though they would not make the same comment in person.
Given the above information, what can be done to combat harassment in the remote workplace? According to the Fast Company article, “Why Remote Work Hasn’t Cut Down on Workplace Harassment,” by Gwen Moran, organizations must create a culture that supports people speaking up against harassment and mistreatment. Organizations can do this by defining behavioral expectations clearly and in writing, frequently holding anti-harassment training, creating several channels for employees to report harassment, and establishing a clear investigation policy so that reports are addressed fairly and consistently. Importantly, decision makers must clearly communicate reporting options and investigation policies to all members of an organization so that employees feel empowered to speak up. Ethics and compliance hotlines, such as Red Flag Reporting, provide employees with multiple means to report harassment securely and anonymously. Implementing these best practices sets a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated in your workplace, remotely or in person.