Remote working may seem like a reprieve for employees. With greater flexibility of this work arrangement, comes greater engagement, productivity, work-life balance, and a slew of other benefits. However, the reality of remote working has just seeped in with an uptick in virtual harassment and cyber-bullying.
One might be tempted to think that because physical interactions are not possible in a remote work environment, there is no scope for harassment or other illicit behaviour. On the contrary, the remote workplace is beginning to witness subtler forms of virtual harassment. If not curbed, it can lead to bigger problems for an organisation and its employees. Several news articles are indicating the rise of virtual workplace harassment. For instance, a recent Bloomberg report has brought to notice the growing trauma of virtual harassment ranging from gender harassment, racial intimidation to bullying, and more.
The explosion of people working from home has led to a blurring of personal and professional lives. The office environment lends a formal tone to the setting, whereas, with the transition to the home space, an informal work environment has set in. As a result, it has increased the probability of virtual workplace harassment manifold in the absence of tighter control or supervision.
Bullying in the Virtual Workspace
Everyone is familiar with the microaggressions that are common in the office workplace. However, brazen acts such as storming out of meetings or criticising a team member may not be done discreetly in an office work environment. On the other hand, when it comes to virtual workspaces, it’s difficult to monitor private chats or video calls. For instance, it is difficult to keep a tab of conversations that tend to quickly turn toxic on a personal level or to tune someone out that can be done with a click of a button.
The examples of bullying in the virtual workplace are aplenty. It could be a manager excessively putting someone in the spot, exerting too much pressure, or it could be body shaming, mocking them for their mannerisms or lifestyle – affecting their self-esteem and motivation to work.
Some employees don’t even report such incidents for fear of being called out or even laid off during these uncertain times. Other employees may be unsure about what counts as harassment in a virtual environment and question whether they can take it up with the HR department. This only reinforces a culture of fear and intimidation.
Virtual Harassment at the Workplace
As one might expect, instances of sexual harassment do not dwindle in a remote work environment even if it’s not possible to touch someone inappropriately or saying something to their face. Some examples of misconduct can be as benign as people not being appropriately dressed for video meetings, asking employees to take calls at unusual times, or insisting on video calls, even at odd hours.
Women are more prone to virtual harassment, but they may hesitate to come forward because they doubt if anyone would believe them and also may be unable to come up with any conclusive evidence to prove their case.
Women are more prone to virtual harassment, but they may hesitate to come forward because they doubt if anyone would believe them and also may be unable to come up with any conclusive evidence to prove their case. Moreover, as people are stressed out about their professional future, health, and safety, they tend to exhibit it in unexpected ways towards their colleagues or subordinates.Companies should have zero tolerance for virtual harassment and take the initiative to counsel their employees from time to time. Click To Tweet
Additionally, employees also need to be aware of the implicit tones used in text communication as opposed to explicit, sarcastic in-person jibes. Since this can give way to harassment in unfamiliar ways, it is important to be vigilant with communication in a remote workplace.
What can Organisations do to Tackle Virtual Workplace Harassment?
It all starts with laying the ground rules and holding offenders accountable to establish a safe workplace. Companies should have zero tolerance for virtual harassment and take the initiative to counsel their employees from time to time.
Here’s what companies can do to tackle the issue:
Review your Current Harassment Policy
Employers must have a robust, comprehensive, and uniform anti-harassment policy that applies equally to staff working from the office or at home. It should contain clear guidelines applicable to spoken and written words in emails, text messages, and even social media posts that may be viewed by customers, employees, etc. Inappropriate conduct during a video call should also be reported.
With Work From Home (WFH) becoming common, it is time to review the policies to ensure that they cover conduct beyond the physical workplace and incorporate digital channels as well. Senior management should make it a point to emphasise the importance of adhering to these norms at skip-level meetings and town hall sessions so that employees across departments can be made aware.
Train Managers to Look for Signs of Virtual Harassment
Not all harassment complaints come directly to the management’s attention due to hesitation or lack of awareness in reporting the same. Therefore, managers need to pick up signs of unreported harassment or misconduct. Here are a few things to look for:
- Employees suddenly become disengaged, withdrawn or quieter during calls,
- Inappropriate dressing by employees during a video call,
- Offensive photos, décor, or signs in some employees’ workspace that are visible during a video call.
- Use of inappropriate words or gestures during calls and use of language in emails/team chats
Provide a Confidential Channel to Employees to Report a Problem and Guarantee Thorough Investigations
Never ignore complaints about bullying behaviour without a due investigation. Create a mechanism for employees to confidentially report any issues to the HR department without fear of retaliation. Your employees need someone to trust them, so listen to their problems and address them in the right way. Collect evidence from other employees regarding any instance of misconduct and report offenders to senior management for disciplinary action, as appropriate.
Workplace Anti-Harassment Training
Conducting anti-harassment awareness training sessions is vital to keeping virtual harassment at bay during remote working. Educate employees about the forms of workplace harassment, encourage them to open up, and take proactive prevention steps. This will help in upholding an open and liberal organisational culture.Conducting anti-harassment awareness training sessions is vital to keeping virtual harassment at bay during remote working. Click To Tweet
The truth is harassment will not fade away on its own. As workplaces become more dynamic and employees shift to flexible schedules, organisations need to address the growing issue of virtual harassment and misconduct.
Work from home is a huge challenge for employees as it is for companies, and unfortunately addressing the growing concern of virtual harassment may take a back seat. The truth is harassment will not fade away on its own. As workplaces become more dynamic and employees shift to flexible schedules, to provide safe working conditions no matter the place of work.
What are some steps you think an organisation should take to curb virtual harassment?