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Take Precautions Against Online Harassment in Virtual Workplaces

A woman is sitting in front of a computer screen.

Sexual harassment has entered the remote workplace, as the casual nature of virtual and online communication blurs professional boundaries. Employers need to modify their HR policies to account for these new concerns, according to Rob Wilson, president of employment solutions firm Employco USA, headquartered in Westmont, Ill.

"We are seeing co-workers in their bedrooms instead of their cubicles. And instead of communicating in person, you're chatting with your co-workers over Slack or Google," he stated in a news release. "These workplace communications can easily begin to feel like an extension of social media—like your personal Facebook or Twitter page—leading employees to make more risqué jokes or even discuss politics or other touchy subjects that would normally be off the menu in a real office environment."

And blocking the harasser is not an option if the harasser is a supervisor or a colleague with whom the targeted employee has to collaborate.

"Companies need to spend more time considering how sexual harassment and discrimination is going to look different in our Zoom work culture," Wilson said. "Many people are going to continue working from home, even after the pandemic is over, so our policies and practices need to reflect this."

It can be easy for employees to forget that the virtual call they are having with clients or colleagues is work-related, especially if it takes place after normal work hours and from the comfort of home.

"[These platforms] have become an extension of your workplace," Wilson said. "You need to keep your conversations correct and not cross the line and make anybody feel uncomfortable."

Employers should be prepared to give offenders a written warning, talk with them or even terminate their employment.

"If you say, 'I have zero tolerance [for harassment],' you have to be prepared to follow through," Wilson said. "Harassment is harassment; you have to be able to take action" no matter who is perpetuating it.

Stay Vigilant

Inappropriate communication can include off-color jokes or side comments in the meeting's chat feature about what a co-worker is wearing, or saying how sexy he or she looks. And it can go beyond that, according to Broderick C. Dunn, a partner at Cook Craig & Francuzenko law firm in Fairfax, Va.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

"I've seen issues where male or female supervisors have insisted their subordinates [appear] on camera," he said, even though the subordinate did not need to be on screen, because they wanted to ogle the underling.

Working remotely can make workplace harassment easier to perpetrate, according to Dunn, and can potentially evolve into cyberstalking.

"If people have more access to each other, I think there's more opportunity for funny business, more opportunities for malfeasance," he explained. "It's easier to stalk somebody because you can see their calendar."

Employers must stay vigilant, he said. Many HR professionals are focused on COVID-19-related issues—such as how the organization will return employees to the office, whether the ventilation system up to par and what the employer's mask policy is—and this can divert their attention from other concerns.

Dunn offered the following recommendations in a blog post:

  • Tweak your regular sexual-harassment training to include examples of inappropriate virtual conduct. "Just because your employees are working from home does not mean that your company's equal employment opportunity policies do not apply," he noted. If employees use a virtual background during a Zoom meeting, it is within a private employer's purview, he told SHRM Online, to deem whether that background is inappropriate.
  • Encourage employees to immediately report inappropriate conduct as they would if they were onsite. Be mindful that you may have new employees who do not know the procedure for reporting sexual harassment or who to contact.
  • Limit one-on-one videoconferences between employees.
  • Make sure virtual meetings are secure to prevent "Zoom bombers." This is when an uninvited individual "crashes" a meeting and shares disturbing or distracting content on with participants. There are preventive measures employers can take, including requiring participants to log in using an approved meeting ID and password, turning off the file-transfer capability or locking the meeting so no one can join after it's started—even if that person has the ID and password.
  • Closely monitor employees' electronic communications to ensure company policies are not violated.
"Constantly be reminding people, 'If you see something, say something,' " Dunn said. "That's just a good rule of thumb."

Other SHRM resources:

Viewpoint: Tips for Creating Virtual Anti-Harassment Training During the Pandemic, SHRM Online, August 2020

Report: Sexual Harassment Has Long-Term Economic Impact on Women, SHRM Online, December 2019

5 Tips for Upgrading Your Anti-Harassment Policy, SHRM Online, February 2018

Quiz: Is It Sexual Harassment?, SHRM Online, February 2017


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