As millions of employees continue to work from home or in a hybrid environment, HR leaders need to adapt policies, processes and practices to address sexual harassment and other misconduct that occurs beyond the boundaries of a physical building.
What is sexual harassment?
Whether it happens online or in-person, sexual harassment encompasses a range of behaviors. Under US federal law, there are two types of sexual harassment, quid pro quo and hostile work environment, and both can occur in a virtual workspace.
Quid pro quo (something for something) is a type of harassment in which employment decisions are based on whether or not an individual submits to or rejects a supervisor’s unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, a manager who sends a text message to an employee with an offer of a raise in exchange for a sexual favor.
A hostile work environment involves unwelcome sexual conduct that “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance” or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
Some examples of behaviors that can lead to a hostile work environment include:
- Texting a sexual image to a co-worker
- Referring to people as “sexy,” “bae,” “boo,” “cutie” and other similar terms
- Making risqué or obscene comments, verbally or in a text, email or chat
- Using offensive gestures
- Displaying sexual images, in print or digitally
- Talking about one’s sex life or fantasies
6 Proactive Steps To Prevent Workplace Harassment
As organizations adapt to an evolving work environment, these are some of the concrete actions that can help address and prevent harassment.
- Include online harassment in all relevant policies
Online harassment should be covered in anti-harassment, social media and work-from-home policies and guidelines. It should also be addressed in the organization’s code of conduct and other related communication and activities.
- Implement online complaint procedures
It’s important to make it easy and convenient for employees to report incidents of harassment they may experience or witness. Complaint procedures should be available online and have multiple points of contact, such as an anonymous hotline, a dedicated email address or a designated manager. Along with encouraging employees to report misconduct, organizations should make it clear that speaking up about harassment won’t result in retaliation.
- Train all employees and managers regularly
With a focus on behavior — what is acceptable and unacceptable — and the consequences of misconduct, online harassment training can be a practical and strategic tool to prevent harassment and strengthen workplace culture. Effective training should be interactive, relevant to the experiences of employees and managers and aligned with the organization’s strategy, values and principles.
- Raise awareness of microaggressions
These subtle indignities, slights and insults — often unintentional — can creep into the virtual work environment, and, if left unchecked, can turn into harassing or discriminating behavior. Stemming from unconscious bias, microaggressions send hidden messages that perpetuate stereotypes about race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability or other characteristics, and can have negative effects on employees’ mental, emotional and physical well-being, engagement and productivity.
- Encourage bystander intervention
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has called bystander intervention training one of the most effective ways to stop inappropriate conduct before it becomes unlawful harassment and prevent future incidents. And common bystander intervention techniques used to disrupt, confront, support and report misconduct can all be applied in a remote work environment.
- Advance diversity, equity and inclusion
There is a strong link between preventing harassment and discrimination and building a workplace culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Promoting DEI shouldn’t slow down or stop when employees are not onsite. A remote environment is an opportunity to explore new technologies and ways of communicating, collaborating, adapting and innovating so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
As the virtual or hybrid work model becomes more prevalent, HR and training leaders should make clear that behavior expectations don’t change when interactions move from in-person to online. Employees at all levels should be aware of the different forms of harassment and be encouraged to speak up and report misconduct, whenever and wherever it occurs.
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