Has workplace harassment shifted online?

workplace harassment shifted online

What has been the impact of COVID and the eventual shift to remote working on workplace harassment? How have the dynamics changed? And more importantly, have they changed for the better or the worse? While some companies have reported a sharp decline in complaints related to harassment in remote working, others reported a mere shift of harassment to the online mode.

As more studies dealing with the impact of this shift on the nature, type and medium of harassment at workplace are coming out, companies are realising for the need to revise and update their policies. At this point it is not only important to deny that physical proximity limits contact and therefore harassment, but to accept that online mediums provide for multiple channels of anonymous abuse, and a wide variety of abuses that are not possible physically. 

In October 2020, a writer at the New Yorker and a political analyst at CNN, Jeffrey Toobin was suspended for exposing his genitals to his co-workers during a zoom call. In his defence he claimed to be unaware of the fact that his camera was on. However, keeping in mind the statistics and the frequency of flashing as a common form of sexual abuse, one cannot ignore the underlying implications of this act. Another woman anonymously reported the use of screenshots of facial expressions from zoom calls to make sexual remarks at colleagues and implying them to be indulged in sexual activity. The important thing to realise here is that online harassment has a far too wide a scope in terms of channels of access and abuse, and can be far too subtle to recognise, assess and reach conclusive decisions. In most cases, majority people will not identify demands and expectations from employees to be harassment at all as in the case of employers asking female employees to dress “attractively” for clients making them feel objectified and self-conscious about their appearance. 

So, as work shifted to our homes, so have harassment and bullying. As new forms of harassment creep into our work places, what are the steps that companies need to take to ensure that remote work does not become a haven for sexual predators and bullies alike.

Channels of communication: What are the channels of communication that your employees use to connect with each-other for work? Chances are that limiting and regulating protocols on the medium of communication between employees will eventually curb channels of unwanted communication. It is advisable to ask employees to limit their communication to the medium provided by the company like Slack and avoid connecting on personal accounts on WhatsApp or email. These professionally designed channels like Slack and Zoom are consistently working to improve upon their technology to limit cases of harassment and ensuring accountability by employees. Not only are all work-related communications recorded, but there is little scope of getting away with any form of unnecessary or vulgar commenting. 

A robust remote working policy: Workspace policies have evolved over a long period of time and required consistent effort to be efficient in ensuring that they cover all aspects of the office. However, remote work is not only different in ways we have yet to realise, the sudden and unplanned shift made it impossible for most companies to devise even preliminary and rough drafts of policies of working online. Most decisions regarding the specifics of work were left in the hands of individual managers to figure what worked best for their team. While there is no denying of the fact that such flexibility was key in reducing the stress of a sudden shift to a different mode of working, it also gave opportunities for managers to harass and bully employees in their own accord. Decisions around dress-code, the use of camera in online meetings, the space from where one could and could not work, the use of chatline still hang loose two years into the pandemic. 

Most companies would benefit from working towards a remote working policy that informs their employees clearly what is expected of them. This will reduce the instances of uneasy demands and expectations, and ensure that nobody is harassed simply due to the lack of clarity.

Educate, Intimate, Encourage: In a gendered society like ours, casual sexism is rampant and prevents people from recognising instances of abuse even in normal conditions. It is therefore only natural that the confusion regarding what comes under abuse and what doesn’t has grown during the pandemic with changing work conditions. Companies need to push their harassment cells to revise their policies and guidelines, take multiple sessions with employees to raise awareness on these issues, intimate them about what is acceptable and what is not and encourage them to come out. A little awareness could go a long way in ensuring that your employees are not reeling under casual sexism and everyday harassment. 

Harassment is a tool of subjugation that reinvents itself with changing circumstances, and so should the policies that are intended to locate, identify and bring the perpetrators of harassment to the table of accountability. Online mode is increasingly becoming the preferred medium of working for a great majority of the working population and it is high time we work towards making it secure.