Preventing Harassment in a Remote Work Setting

Protecting staff should be a priority — whether they’re working in the same office as you or miles away.

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Preventing Harassment in a Remote Work Setting

Here's what you need to know:

  • Inappropriate workplace behaviors can be sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, and more
  • Remind employees that you don’t expect them to tolerate inappropriate behavior — even when working from home
  • Act quickly and decisively to investigate and resolve any issues or complaints

As we moved to remote work, many of the challenges we faced onsite moved with us. As the setting for work appears more casual, many workers are facing harassment they’ve never dealt with before. Others are seeing a continuation of the torment they thought they’d escaped by working from home.

Remote work hasn’t eliminated harassment, discrimination, and bullying. In fact, knowing no one is watching and that there are no witnesses or bystanders to stick up for victims may actually be emboldening some. Some suggest the additional stress of working remotely impacts ‘manipulative behavior,’ which could make it easier to get angry quickly. That could be recipe for harassment in the more informal online environment.

From a business leader’s perspective, the inability to monitor remote employees without fully infringing on their autonomy only adds to the problem. As employees shift to a more informal work environment, managers may find their staff are feel less likely to confront harassers or report problems to their superiors. Protecting staff, whether they’re onsite or miles away, is critical to a productive, professional workplace.

How prevalent is remote harassment?

Over 25% of remote workers say they’ve experienced unwelcome sexual behavior, either through videoconferences, text, email, or internal chats according to a TalentLMS survey.

Over 25% of remote workers say they’ve experienced unwelcome sexual behavior, either through videoconferences, text, email, or internal chats according to a TalentLMS survey. Another study, from Project Include, found 26% experienced more gender-based harassment remotely than they experienced in person: 23% of those over 50 reported more age-related harassment and 10% more bias due to their race or ethnicity.

Some harassment or discrimination is legally actionable based on protected status. Other types, like bullying, excluding and intimidation, may not meet a legal definition of harassment, but they can be just as disruptive and unprofessional.

Workers who rely on remote access to continue working may feel they have little choice but to tolerate the behavior. As business adjusts to technology and the challenges to assure productivity for remote staff, unprofessional behavior can become a low-priority item. That’s a mistake.

Two types of offenders

For some, a more relaxed work environment means a more casual approach to their peers. They may think flirting, joking, or off-color remarks are acceptable. They may think teasing or excluding is more tolerable in a remote setting. You may also find them missing out on verbal and visual cues that their behavior is off-putting in chat rooms or in online calls. They may not mean to offend, but their behavior is still offensive and unacceptable.

For others, the remote work presents an opportunity to behave inappropriately whenever they choose. They know their actions are unprofessional, prohibited, and toxic, but they’re confident there’s less chance someone will catch them. These employees may even rely on the fact that peers and subordinates may be less likely to complain, fearing their remote status may be at risk if they rock the boat.

How it manifests

Inappropriate workplace behaviors take many forms: none of them should be tolerated by your company or your employees.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can include flirting or questions of a personal or sexual nature. They can be hidden in compliments that cross the line, like ‘”that top looks great,’”or “you’re sounding sexy this morning.” They can be visual content that’s inappropriate, like sending suggestive images or jokes, or even pornographic material. They may even be inadvertent – like sharing a video with the wrong group of people. Even seemingly innocuous emojis can have a suggestive nature. These can start as or develop into more offensive comments, content, or demands.

Employees may be harassed by their colleagues, often tolerating the behavior rather than get someone in trouble. If the offenses are from a manager, employees may feel they have little recourse.

Discrimination

Discriminatory behavior can include offensive epithets; stereotypes or language intended to diminish the recipient. These can come from managers or coworkers. It could include disparate treatment – assigning low-value clients or lesser tasks to some employees and giving choice assignments to others. Discrimination can include not getting raises, benefits, or promotions; being denied leave requests; or being subjected to disciplinary or other actions that negatively impact employment.

Remote employees may also hesitate to report their peers. If their own manager is subjecting them to discriminatory behavior, they may feel powerless to defend themselves or report.

Bullying

Not rising to problems that are legally actionable, bullying in the workplace remains a serious problem. It can include minimizing people, excluding or mocking. Some workers or cliques freeze out certain employees; others are overtly contemptuous of their colleagues. Some sabotage, gossip, or start unflattering rumors about coworkers, or are overly critical. All these behaviors target others with the intention to do harm.

Remote workers may be more susceptible to this type of bullying: they don’t know they were excluded from a meeting, for example, that provided necessary information to complete an assignment. The exclusion, and the subsequent critique of the work either neglected or not performed, might be an example of sabotage. They may be the subject of rumors they never hear about (or are able to combat) because they all take place virtually. This behavior can be as toxic to teams and productivity as any other type of harassment or discrimination.

Dealing with virtual harassment

One of the many myths about remote work is that staff members have no accountability. When it comes to harassment on the job, business leaders must take a proactive approach to assure they do.

Your company probably has policies in place regarding harassment, bullying, and discrimination. If all or part of your staff works remotely, even part-time, it might be a good time for a refresher course in professionalism. Reissue your policy, with a message that emphasizes that it might seem easy to relax our standards in a more relaxed environment, but that harassment, discrimination, and bullying will not be tolerated — in-person or remotely.

From the top down

A show of support from management may be a first step in guiding employees back to appropriate workplace decorum. For those who have gotten too familiar, it may be a wake up call. For those taking advantage it must be a warning.

Remind employees that you don’t expect them to tolerate inappropriate behavior in the workplace – even if their workplace is their own kitchen. Emphasize how critically important it is to stop offensive behavior before it escalates, either themselves or with the help of management or HR.

Don’t ignore the problem

If workers think their colleagues mean no offense, a simple “not funny,”  “not interested,” or “knock it off” may be all that’s needed to stop the behavior. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to ask for help.

Bystanders who hear or see inappropriate language, behaviors, or actions (like images) should step up to defend themselves and others. Empower your employees to say something if they see something.

Notify workers they should record videos, take screenshots, or record phone calls if they feel they’re being targeted. This may be enough to stop the harassment: if not, it will provide solid evidence against the offender.

Create a safe (anonymous if needed) environment for workers, witnesses, and bystanders to report infractions. And encourage everyone to do so. You’re not paying your staff abuse others or tolerate abusive behavior. You’re paying them to work.

Take the reins

Allowing harassment, discrimination or bullying at your organization, no matter how distributed your teams are, damages the workplace. You’ll see lower morale, reduced productivity, increased absences and leave requests. Inappropriate behaviors hurt your reputation as an organization and your bottom line. Your employees shouldn’t tolerate it and neither should your company.

Act quickly and decisively to investigate and resolve any issues or complaints. Conducting an investigation may be more challenging in a remote environment, but it’s just as necessary. Take any action steps needed to stop the problem immediately and come up with a plan to assure it doesn’t happen again in the future. If the situation warrants disciplinary action, make sure your expectations are clear. The behavior stops and there will be no retaliation against the employee for making the complaint.

Conducting an investigation may be more challenging in a remote environment, but it’s just as necessary. Take any action steps needed to stop the problem immediately and come up with a plan to assure it doesn’t happen again in the future.

Consider individual, team or company-wide harassment and discrimination training. There are some companies that offer online courses, many free of charge. Some even tailor training for remote workers. The message to employees is clear: we value you; want to protect you; and work hard to build an environment of professionalism and respect.

Respect – even remotely

For most organizations, once they got past the growing pains of shifting to remote, working from anywhere works. Employees are happy to have the flexibility of working onsite or off, enjoy less commute times and feel more comfortable as the pandemic wanes.

The culture and quality of the workplace shouldn’t be lessened by remote work, it should be enhanced. Remind employees that you value them as professionals, and you expect them to treat one another with respect. If they receive anything less, make sure they’re comfortable reporting the problem, then respond quickly and act on their concerns.

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