If you are a manager or team leader navigating the new normal, you may rightly be concerned with having updated protocols in place to address the number of operational issues that could arise when all or a part of your workforce is working from home. One potential problem area is how to maintain and promote a cohesive and friendly work culture in a remote work environment while also maintaining workplace professionalism, because a more relaxed, less observed, and more physically-distanced workplace culture can create conditions that are ripe for harassment to occur. 1
Harassing conduct includes the following actions:
- Watching, following or pursuing a target individual
- Accosting or confronting a target individual
- Loitering or lingering outside or near the places where the person lives, works, studies or visits
- Making telephone calls or anonymous telephone calls to the target individual
- Getting another person to make telephone calls to the target individual
- Verbal communication
- Other communication including hand signals or graffiti
- Sending anonymous text messages or emails
- Sending letters, packages, faxes, emails or other objects to the target individual
- Delivering packages, faxes, emails or other objects to the target individual
- Leaving packages, faxes, emails or other objects where the target will find them 2
“The laws prohibiting workplace harassment apply regardless of medium—whether that misconduct occurs in-person or online.”
The laws prohibiting workplace harassment apply regardless of medium—whether that misconduct occurs in-person or online. Digital harassment can range from inappropriate jokes or comments in employee emails, chats, or text messages, to sexual or racial innuendo in online employee forums, to blatant exclusion or ridicule (such as intentionally muting individuals during web conferences or defacing their profile pictures), to cyberstalking or distributing offensive photos, gifs, or memes based on protected characteristics. 1
There are two key reasons, among others, that than act as a catalyst to harassment:
- Certain employees may not feel, or may not actually be held, accountable for their behaviour in a remote environment. They may mistakenly believe that the “usual” workplace policies and behavioural expectations don’t apply outside the walls of a worksite.
“Certain employees may not feel, or may not actually be held, accountable for their behaviour in a remote environment.”
2. For many employees, working from home means ready access to alcohol (or other behaviour altering substances) during work time. Some employees consume alcohol during or around working hours, which disrupts decision making and rational thought, reducing their brains’ behavioural inhibitory centres. 1 + 3
Other contributory factors can include:
- The decreased formality and civility in online environments
- A lack of in-person witnesses in remote workspaces
- The challenges inherent in monitoring remote employee conduct
- An increase in employee stress and fatigue due to COVID-19
- A lack of information about how supervisors should address online behaviour
Engaging in situation prevention
Human beings shape their behaviour based on environmental cues. The principle underlying this approach is what criminologists refer to as “situational prevention”. It is helpful to encourage as many of the environmental cues that regulate positive employee behaviour as possible in order to increase respectful behaviour and decrease negative, disrespectful, or harassing behaviour in the remote work environment. For example, by ensuring that every attendee at a meeting has an uninterrupted chance to speak or by encouraging a work-appropriate appearance even if the work- from-home dress code is more casual.
“Managers should set a clear expectation that the same anti-harassment policies and guidelines for professional behaviour in-person also apply in the remote environment.”
Establishing and communicating protocol and procedures
- Managers should set a clear expectation that the same anti-harassment policies and guidelines for professional behaviour in-person also apply in the remote environment—such as thinking carefully before making comments about a person’s appearance or their home, making jokes about being in bed while working, or sharing inappropriate memes. These can seem harmless, but they can make individuals uncomfortable and can also lead to even more grievous behaviour if allowed to continue unchecked. If your organisation’s policies prohibit working under the influence of and/or using drugs or alcohol at work, be sure to include that reminder as well.
- Managers should set up regular team check-ins with individual employees and ask explicit questions about how the remote work experience is going with other team members. Also, holding regular group virtual meetings will reinforce that there is still oversight and accountability in the work environment.
- Educate employees on how to recognise harassment and respond. Employers can take a proactive approach to prevent harassment or repeat incidents by implementing training.
- Provide procedures and resources for targeted employees to report incidents and communicate a clear reporting process. Organisations should not waste any time responding to a complaint or concern. Establishing a process consists of interviewing witnesses, keeping thorough documentation and reaching a conclusion, and deciding what corrective or termination measures will be taken if it is established that harassment has occurred. A third-party anonymous reporting channel can provide workers with an outlet to report a problem when they don’t feel comfortable going to HR or their manager.
The mental assault of being harassed in the work-from-home space
Home is typically a safe space for an employee. However, when digital workplace harassment occurs while an employee is in their home space, this safe buffer is removed. This can have a significant negative impact on an employee’s mental and physical health, extending into their home life and acting as a constant stressor that prevents the individual from unwinding and replenishing their coping resources.
Managers have a moral responsibility to protect their workers from being harassed. Every employee, regardless of their rank or title, should be treated fairly and face the same consequences when they abuse policies or mistreat others. Demonstrating such commitment and compliance cultivates a culture that ensures employees feel safe, valued, comfortable and heard.