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Workplace Harassment Increased During COVID-19 – How Can Employers Address This Issue?

  • Surveys show that workplace harassment increased during the COVID-19 pandemic despite remote work
  • More informal or relaxed working arrangements can potentially lead to a greater incidence in inappropriate remarks
  • Steps for employers to address harassment when retaining remote or hybrid schedules

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

In theory, the shift to remote work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic should have resulted in a decline in on-the-job harassment. Harassment is typically associated with interpersonal behavior at the workplace, and if people aren’t interacting in person there would seem to be less of an opportunity for harassment to take place.

In practice, harassment has actually increased during the pandemic. Recent surveys have suggested an increase in harassment based on gender, race, and age. Harassing behaviors have simply shifted to the digital realm, with a rise in inappropriate remarks made during video calls or in the chat functions of videoconferencing software.

One potential cause for the increase in harassment during remote work is the more informal or casual work environment created when employees conduct their duties from home. This can also result in a more relaxed atmosphere during conversations between employees, increasing the likelihood of a worker making an offensive remark they normally wouldn’t make in the workplace. The issue is exacerbated by employers’ use of third-party platforms, which often are not monitored by managers.

Remote work has also blurred the line between employees’ work lives and personal lives, with video calls often sharing employees’ homes with one another. This has also given rise to unique harassment challenges such as employees displaying inappropriate items or wearing inappropriate clothing.

One of the easiest ways for employers to address remote work harassment is to remind workers of the expectation of professional behavior. This could go so far as to establish rules regarding backgrounds or attire during videoconferencing, but simply establishing that workplace conduct rules apply to home-based employee interactions will likely be sufficient.

This communication can also remind employees that the company’s rules, procedures, and penalties for harassment remain in place during remote work. The business should continue to hold trainings for managers and employees on their expectations and how to report misbehavior.

Harassment may be more likely to occur during conferences between individuals and among teams. Managers can encourage employees to invite them onto a call if they are concerned about potential harassment.

Check your harassment policy to see if it needs to be updated to reflect remote or hybrid work setups. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says policies should take steps such as defining harassment, outlining punishments for employees who harass co-workers, and explaining how employees can report harassment. Consult with an attorney to see what other steps you might take to improve your policy to address remote interactions.

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