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Why workplace harassment increased during the pandemic

You might expect harassment to diminish with everyone out of the office, but two recent surveys show that that remote work may have unintentionally made it easier for colleagues to harass their coworkers.

Why workplace harassment increased during the pandemic
[Source Photos: rawpixel and rawpixel]
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You’re discussing an upcoming project on a video call with a colleague when he tells you how much he likes the artwork on the wall behind you. A few minutes later your colleague notices your roommate walking by and starts asking questions—is that your sister, your roommate, maybe your partner? Then, just as you’re wrapping up the call, your colleague says, “Hey, I really like your top. I’m wondering what you’re wearing on the bottom.”

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Welcome to workplace harassment in the age of remote work. One of the surprising consequences of working from home during the pandemic  is that employees reported an increase in workplace harassment.  While we might expect bullying, unwanted advances and racial taunts to diminish while employees worked from different locations, two recent surveys indicate that remote work may have unintentionally made it easier for colleagues to harass their coworkers.

“I suspect some companies assumed that the lack of physical proximity meant these problems would go away, and they haven’t,” says Ellen Pao, CEO, of Project Include, a non-profit that advocates for diversity and inclusion in the technology industry. According to recent Project Include survey, 25% of respondents said they experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic, 10% said the same of hostility related to their race or ethnicity, and 23% of those 50 years and older reported a jump in age-related abuse.

“Our research shows harassment and hostility have moved from physical and in-person actions to online and technology-based forms,” Pao says. “They range from public bullying attacks on group video calls to berating employees over email to racist and sexist link-sharing in chat and more.” Project Include also found that harassment was more likely to be experienced by employees who identify as Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigeneous, female and nonbinary, and especially by employees at the intersections of these identities.

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Meanwhile, a separate report by The Purple Campaign, a Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to ending workplace harassment, found similar results with one-quarter of employees saying they have experienced an increase in gender-based harassment since COVID-19.

Experts see a host of reasons for this bad behavior. Some cite the increase in one-on-one communication made in isolation, where no one can hear your conversations over Zoom, text or phone. And, with the line between work and home blurred, employees might be more casual in their conversations. “People will say and type things that they would never say out loud and do if they were coming into a physical work space,” says Broderick C. Dunn, a partner at Cook Craig & Francuzenko, PLLC.

Here are four ways companies can curtail remote workplace harassment.

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Clearly state the same rules apply in the office and at home

“The CEO and leaders of a company need to state clearly and repeatedly that harassment, hostility and harm have no place at work, in-person and online,” Pao says.

Make it clear to employees that the same policies about equal opportunity and sexual harassment apply even when employees are working from home or have never met face-to-face, Dunn says. For instance, he says, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst and staff writer for The New Yorker, who masturbated while on a Zoom call with his colleagues, never would have excused himself from a meeting to do that. “Employees need to show the same restraint when working from home as they do in the office,” Dunn says.

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Establish specific requirements for video meetings

If your company doesn’t have specific guidelines for video meetings, establish them now. For instance, Dunn says, require employees to be sitting at a desk or kitchen table to avoid seeing employees sprawled across a bed or couch during video calls. Consider allowing employees the option of turning off their cameras, especially if they aren’t speaking, and encourage employees to record meetings, he says. Dunn also recommends monitoring the online chat during a video call to make sure the comments are appropriate.

Hold joint anti-harassment training for managers and employees

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It’s common for organizations to hold separate training for mangers and non-managers but that can send a message that there are different rules or standards that apply to managers versus employees, says Shea Holman, director of law and policy at The Purple Campaign. Separate trainings may signal to staff that managers and employees shouldn’t discuss harassment. “It can create the idea that non-managers and managers have different rules so employees feel less comfortable reporting harassment because they think managers won’t be held accountable,” Holman says. In fact, Pao says, some respondents from the Project Include survey said they have been taught not to report harassment.

Teach employees how to intervene as bystanders

Approaching employees and managers as potential harassers or victims in an anti-harassment training may cause them to ignore the information because they do not see themselves in that way, Holman says. Studies show that when managers and employees are approached as bystanders to harassment, it empowers them to intervene because it signals that everyone has the power to help prevent harassment, she says. Bystander training should be tailored to your specific workplace and use scenarios that could realistically arise in your workplace so that employees can relate to the examples, she says.

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“There was a call for more transparency at work during #MeToo but, now that work is moving outside the office walls, we need to have another call for transparency,” Holman says.

About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, technology and beer. Her articles appear in The Christian Science Monitor, OZY.com, Family Circle and October.

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