November 4, 2021

Unfortunately, moving from the physical workplace to the virtual one has not eliminated sexual harassment, bias, bullying and other bad behavior. A recent online survey of 800 full-time US employees found that nearly 38% have experienced harassment through email, video conferencing, chat apps or by phone. Further, 24% believe harassment continues or worsens through these remote work channels.

What should employees and managers know about harassment?

All employees should understand that sexual harassment can happen anywhere and laws against discrimination and harassment apply in the remote workplace. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination — it’s unlawful to harass someone based on their sex, which includes their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines two types of sexual harassment — hostile work environment and quid pro quo. Hostile work environment harassment is a kind of harassment in which unwelcome sexual conduct “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance” or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” An example in the remote work world would be an employee who texts sexual images to a coworker. 

Quid pro quo (something for something) harassment happens when employment decisions are based on whether someone accepts or rejects unwelcome sexual conduct. This type of harassment involves a manager or others who have authority to make decisions that affect someone’s job. 

Some effective steps that organizations can take to address and prevent virtual harassment include: 

Setting clear expectations for behaviors – With the lines blurred between work and home, employees need to understand that whether harassment and other inappropriate behavior occurs in person or online, it’s prohibited.  Codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies, procedures and training should be updated to clarify and reinforce behavior expectations in the new world of work — and the consequences for misconduct.

Managers as role models – Through their own words and actions, frontline managers can serve as role models for how to be respectful, inclusive and professional in a remote workplace. This includes creating a safe, supportive environment in which team members feel comfortable speaking up when they see or hear different forms of harassment or other unacceptable behavior. Training managers on communicating effectively with remote employees and proactively checking in and listening to their concerns is an important factor in creating health teams.

Providing reporting options – Remote employees can’t walk into the HR director’s office and discuss an incident, so it’s critical to offer different channels to report incidents of harassment and other workplace issues. However, reporting channels aren’t effective if employees don’t use them for fear of being retaliated against. Managers and employees in supervisory roles should be trained on their responsibility to avoid retaliation against anyone who reports harassment, discrimination or other misconduct. 

Encouraging bystander intervention – As in the physical workplace, active bystanders can help address and prevent virtual harassment. The common bystander intervention techniques of disrupt, confront, support and report can all be applied in a remote environment. Bystander intervention training is one of the most effective ways to make employees aware of these different techniques and the importance of using good judgment in deciding when and how to safely intervene.

Traliant Insight

Unfortunately, the shift to a remote/hybrid work environment has not eliminated sexual harassment. Organizations should adapt policies, procedures, practices and training to reflect the remote world of work and reinforce managers’ role in setting standards for respectful, inclusive remote conduct and encouraging employees to speak up and report inappropriate behavior.