The efforts of HR, employers, and employees collectively can slow the instance of digital sexual harassment and keep the company afloat with excellent moral standards and failsafe methods of prevention, reporting, and investigation.
Here's what you need to know about handling sexual harassment allegations with remote teams:
- Make it easy to speak up about sexual misconduct by developing safe reporting channels.
- Even if the home is the new workplace, an employee should be repelled by harassment and possess basic morals and ethical standards.
- Social conduct should be at the top of everyone's mind as they perform their regular duties.
Even before the pandemic swept the globe, 17% of US employees worked in a fully remote location. During COVID-19, this percentage grew by 27% as workplaces explored remote or hybrid work to alleviate health and childcare concerns. As it would turn out, working remotely significantly increased job satisfaction and production among employees from every sector. In light of this researched and experienced news, many companies decided to maintain WFH (work-from-home) options.
Businesses and HR departments still retained the effort to maintain employee decorum and policy obedience outside of the onsite office. Keeping the company culture and professional code of conduct continues to be necessary even from home. Nevertheless, as Americans adapted their professional lives to the remote transformation, so did their more unacceptable behaviors.
Sexual predators aren’t biased toward in-person attacks. They only acclimated themselves to the online environment. They began sending sexually explicit emails and comments and taking screenshots without consent. Since this behavior is occurring in a working environment, it is still considered workplace sexual harassment. Treat this behavior as it would if it occurred in the office.
Prevention of harassment
Businesses need to understand how digital sexual harassment occurs and how to handle these situations accordingly. The best first step is executing means of prevention from sexual harassment in a virtual workplace.
Harassment training and policy updates
Help employees by teaching them what constitutes virtual sexual harassment. This may require policy updates to redefine the meaning of “workplace” and an all-encompassing definition of sexual harassment.
Updating policy and procedure is especially necessary when it outlines any in-person communication of the matter at hand. A virtual environment should not be an excuse to prevent an employee’s mandated reporting and ethical conduct.
Creating a culture where employees look out for each other is a great way to cultivate an anti-bullying, anti-harassment working environment.
Training should be provided regularly to keep employees abreast of existing terms and changes in the workplace. Apply anti-harassment training to every employee regardless of WFH status. In the case of remote work, sexual harassment prevention training should showcase what it looks and sounds like from a virtual point of view.
To provide a sense of community in the workplace, it’s a good idea to incorporate a conference call via Zoom, Skype, or another virtual team meeting domain. Creating a culture where employees look out for each other is a great way to cultivate an anti-bullying, anti-harassment working environment.
Make it easy to speak up about sexual misconduct by developing safe reporting channels. This could mean controlling a phone number strictly designated for anonymous reporting, a private email address, or a website to provide anonymous accounts.
Training should include a testing process at the end where scores are tallied in secret, and an employee must receive a passing grade before obtaining specific incentives.
Reinforce civility and company vision
Even if the home is the new workplace, an employee should be repelled by harassment and possess basic morals and ethical standards. Every company should have a vision and ethics that employees are expected to honor. Integrity should be one of many qualities of a business and its workforce.
Encourage employees in leadership roles to set an example of anti-harassment from the top of the ladder. They enforce company values and behave as though they live by them. They should always take accusations seriously and show concern for the matter in ways that establish zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Other employees will:
- Take heed of leadership’s sense of urgency in these matters
- Discourage heinous acts
- Encourage the reporting of sexual misconduct
When hiring a new employee, explain and reinforce solid expectations throughout their career. Do this during the application of a daily check-in or email reminders. A communal daily check-in also incorporates a healthy working relationship between employees as a type of icebreaker.
Implement simple practices to prevent harassment
Host daily check-ins or video conferences. These short meetings aren’t a punishment, and employees shouldn’t view them as one. This time should feel like a momentary break to alleviate mental stress and give the team chances to share concerns and provide feedback wherever necessary.
Social conduct should be at the top of everyone’s mind as they perform their regular duties. This means encouraging workers to continue their work as if they were in the office. Great codes of conduct to follow include:
- Adhering to dress code regulations
- Creating an office space in their homes for virtual meetings
- Eliminating distractions
Remind employees to check their surroundings before activating their cameras to prevent any displeasing personal items from being displayed. Inform workers about how to correctly use their technology and the inappropriate ways in which communication is being executed.
Implementing these minimal efforts allows for fewer excuses for lack of focus and embarrassing mistakes.
When you’ve taken preventative action, and it has failed, you must take immediate and earnest action.
Address harassment allegations immediately
When you’ve taken preventative action, and it has failed, you must take immediate and earnest action. Handle harassment complaints in a remote, private environment, just as you would any other formal complaint. Merely amend the process of handling a sexual harassment allegation to suit the WFH work style. It should never be an excuse for not dealing with these serious issues.
First, the victim needs to hear from HR that they will not be faced with retaliation or punishment if they are found innocent in all aspects. The affected employee should know when to report again if they suspect their assailant is trying to even the score. Since 75% of sexual harassment goes unreported, they must have the reassurance that they made the right decision.
A serious investigation must get underway, complete with thorough interviews of all parties. Keep these investigations confidential and classified to everyone except the HR liaison assigned to the case, lawyers, and anyone on a need-to-know basis. Conduct a virtual meeting with the accused and the accuser separately and listen attentively to each claim.
Documentation is everything. In a virtual environment, some virtual meeting tools use recording provisions which may be helpful in these situations. A recording can be:
- Kept safe under password protection
- Played for investigative and corroboration purposes
Since there is a difference in the workplace environment, it is necessary to make do while still upholding privacy policies.
After the investigation has concluded, your designated team will make a collective decision about the factual basis and severity of the harassment and make arrangements for future steps. In very minor cases, some antagonists undergo:
- A probationary period
- More mandatory training
- Other avenues for reprimanding
The worst-case scenario remains the same – termination, fines, and lawsuits.
The victim should have access to free counseling and recommendations for legal services. Follow up with them in the near future and ensure they are taking steps to be mentally and physically well.
An HR worker or small business owner needs to understand that even law enforcement cannot perfectly investigate every situation, let alone those that occur in a virtual environment. In remote work, it can be slightly more challenging to find and get down to the bottom of sexual harassment cases, but it is never impossible.
Much like office-place sexual harassment, online sexual harassment isn’t going to disappear in one fell swoop. The efforts of HR, employers, and employees collectively can slow the instance of digital sexual harassment and keep the company afloat with excellent moral standards and failsafe methods of prevention, reporting, and investigation.