Combating virtual harassment in remote work
In the post-COVID-19 era, the shift to remote work and hybrid employment conditions has become a common adaptation for many businesses worldwide. This change, while necessary and often convenient, has altered the dynamics of workplace interactions, leading to a rise in online abuse and harassment in the remote work setting. Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit and current CEO of Project Include, shared a recent study highlighting an increase in harassment based on age, gender, and race/ethnicity in remote work environments since the onset of the pandemic.
A UK survey by Rights of Women further reinforced this data, revealing that nearly half of the women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment have encountered some, if not all, of it online. The survey conducted also highlights a 15% increase in online sexual harassment for women working remotely during COVID-19. This growing concern emphasises the need for clear strategies and robust systems for workplaces to address and prevent online harassment in work-from-home settings, ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all employees.
From December 12, the positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act will be enforced by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Remote and hybrid workplaces are not exempt from employers' duties to eliminate sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination in the workplace. Now is the time for workplaces to take a stand against harassment.
What is virtual harassment?
Online harassment encompasses any unwelcome conduct, comments, or actions that create a hostile or intimidating work environment. It can involve discriminatory or offensive actions based on characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or age.
Victims of harassment often experience profound emotional distress, anxiety, and a decline in work productivity. Perpetrators may face severe consequences, including disciplinary actions, termination, or legal repercussions. Employers bear the responsibility of addressing and preventing online harassment to ensure a safe and inclusive remote work environment.
Types and forms of virtual harassment
Online harassment takes various forms, often inflicting psychological distress and creating a hostile work environment. Understanding these forms is crucial to combatting such behaviour effectively.
Common types of remote workplace harassment
Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying involves using digital or private messaging platforms to intimidate, threaten, or humiliate a co-worker. This might include sending abusive emails, derogatory messages, or spreading false rumours about a coworker.
Discriminatory comments: Harassment can manifest through discriminatory remarks based on race, gender, age, religion, or other protected characteristics. Examples include inappropriate comments targeting a colleague's ethnicity during a video conference.
Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking occurs when a person persistently follows and monitors a colleague across online platforms, making them feel threatened or unsafe.
Invasion of privacy: Harassers may intrude into their colleagues' personal lives by excessively monitoring their online activities, attempting to access personal information, or using excessive surveillance tools.
Unsolicited sexually explicit content: This type of harassment involves sending explicit photographs, messages, or videos without the recipient's consent. For example, an employee might receive unsolicited explicit images shared via email or chat apps.
Sexual comments and advances: In remote settings, sexual comments or advances can manifest through chat, private messages, or video conferencing tools. For instance, an employee may receive suggestive comments or propositions from a colleague during a virtual meeting.
Derogatory remarks and jokes: Harassment can also take the form of offensive jokes or derogatory remarks based on gender, appearance, or sexual orientation. This might include demeaning comments about an employee's appearance or comments of a sexual nature during a video call.
Online isolation: Some employees may be deliberately excluded from virtual meetings, chats, or collaborative workspaces. This form of harassment can lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Understanding virtual harassment in work-from-home and remote work contexts
The shift to working from home has inadvertently intensified work pressure and expectations on employees. A significant 64% of individuals reported increased work hours since the onset of COVID-19, with many feeling the pressure to be constantly online and available. This environment, marked by poor communication practices and a focus on activity over productivity, has inadvertently created a fertile ground for workplace harassment. The expectation of remote workers being continuously responsive across multiple platforms has blurred the boundaries between personal and professional spaces, making it harder for individuals to escape or address inappropriate behaviour.
Why has workplace harassment increased despite remote work?
The lack of physical oversight in remote work settings has encouraged some individuals to exert undue power over more vulnerable colleagues. The channels through which remote work occurs are often unmonitored, unrecorded, or happen outside formal work platforms and software. Respondents to Project Include reported experiencing harassment more frequently over chat (45%), email (41%), or video meetings (41%) compared to productivity tools used publicly by many employees. The absence of physical oversight means that harassers can follow their targets across online spaces, often resorting to private interactions, such as one-on-one conversations, to exert control.
Informal communication, which increased with the shift to remote work during the pandemic, can exacerbate misconduct. Employees may feel that online environments are not considered formal places of work and believe that traditional rules don't apply. This perception, coupled with the difficulty of discerning intent from text stripped of tonal cues, can lead to a rise in inappropriate communications.
The realities of virtual harassment
According to a 2023 Deloitte survey, Women at Work: A Global Outlook, 44% of women have experienced some form of harassment or microaggression in the past year. Women of colour and LGBTQ women were significantly more likely to experience these non-inclusive behaviours. Project Include found that 25% of respondents experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic, about 10% experienced an increase in race- and ethnicity-based hostility, and 23% of respondents who were 50 years and older experienced increased age-based harassment or hostility.
While obscene instances, such as video call nudity, become headlines, more common examples of misconduct and harassment can include unwelcome comments about an employee's appearance, demeanour, physical surroundings, productivity, or political beliefs. Remote work can also reveal aspects of identity an employee may have preferred to keep private, such as children, partners and pets, leading to further harassment and microaggressions. Though seemingly benign, these behaviours can undermine the workplace equality Australians have fought for.
Where do we go from here?
Businesses have been unprepared to address remote workplace harassment. The lack of policies and procedures around what is acceptable in virtual communication makes it difficult for employees to know what to do when they feel uncomfortable and for employers to hold employees accountable. A good remote harassment policy should include an expansive definition of what harassment is and looks like at work, establish clear reporting channels, and outline a clearly defined procedure to follow if a report comes in.
Practical steps to prevent online harassment in remote work
Preventing online harassment begins with a comprehensive approach that includes clear policies, training programs, and effective communication. Here are some practical steps for employers:
Establish clear policies: Develop a clear code of conduct that explicitly addresses online behaviour. Ensure these policies cover various forms of harassment, including those related to remote working. Employees should be aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and online abuse.
Conduct training: Regularly educate employees and managers about online harassment, its consequences, and how to report incidents. Training programs should emphasise the importance of respectful virtual interactions.
Foster a culture of inclusion: Promote inclusivity by encouraging open dialogue about online harassment concerns. Create a safe space for employees to report sexual harassment and other forms of abuse.
Implement reporting mechanisms: Set up a confidential system for online harassment incidents. Your company's human resources department should ensure employees have multiple avenues for reporting harassment, such as a dedicated whistleblowing platform like Elker.
Encourage reporting: Create a culture that encourages reporting of misconduct without fear of retaliation. Assure employees that their concerns will be taken seriously and kept confidential.
Investigate promptly: When a complaint is filed, investigate the incident promptly and take appropriate action. Make it clear that online harassment will not be tolerated.
Provide trauma-informed support: If necessary, offer support services to victims, including counselling or legal assistance. Ensure those who have experienced sexual harassment, discrimination or online abuse feel protected and valued.
Legal compliance: Stay updated on relevant employment laws, like the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and Workplace Health and Safety regulations. Ensure you review your policies and ensure your company's procedure is compliant with current legislation.
Monitor trends: Stay informed about emerging trends in workplace harassment and adapt your prevention strategies accordingly.
Adapt and improve: Continuously refine your harassment prevention measures based on feedback, incident data, and changing workplace dynamics.
By following these steps, employers can significantly reduce the risk of harassment and create a virtual work environment where all employees feel safe, respected, and empowered.
How Elker can help
Online harassment can inflict lasting harm on individuals and workplace dynamics. It's a pressing issue that demands our collective attention and action. By acknowledging its existence and actively seeking solutions, we pave the way for a more respectful and inclusive remote work environment. There are many benefits to using an anonymous reporting platform, whether your business is conducted in person or remotely.
One solution is Elker, a speak-up platform designed to combat sexual harassment, discrimination and other misconduct at its roots. Elker understands the significance of early intervention. Through anonymous reporting and pulse surveys, it empowers employees to voice their concerns, no matter how small, without fear of repercussions.
By embracing Elker, organisations not only gain a tool to combat online harassment but also foster a culture of open communication and proactive problem-solving. The platform acts as a beacon of trust, encouraging employees to speak up early, thereby preventing minor issues from evolving into major problems. View all the features of Elker and book a platform demo when you're ready.