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Can Sexual Harassment Happen in a Remote Workplace?

Harassment & Discrimination

Can Sexual Harassment Happen in a Remote Workplace?

What do you think of when you hear the words “sexual harassment?” Maybe you think of someone inappropriately touching a coworker, leering at them, or making sexual comments about their body. It may seem like sexual harassment is more likely to take place in person, but workplace harassment can still happen in a company practicing remote work full- or part-time.

Remote workplace harassment

While there are many benefits to remote workplaces, employees may work without much supervision, with no one else around to witness or intervene and giving harassers the feeling that they easily take advantage of their target’s isolation. Remote harassment can also occur in highly collaborative environments, with inappropriate messages or requests coming via private channels even during a team meeting. Additionally, employees may not feel comfortable enough with their supervisors or HR department to feel like any claim they make will be taken seriously. All these factors can put remote workplaces at high risk for harassment.

How often does workplace harassment happen during remote work? A 2021 poll from our partners at AllVoices found that 38% of participants had been affected by remote workplace harassment, which took place via email, video calls, private messaging apps, or by phone. Furthermore, 24% of those polled believe that harassment continued or even got worse while working remotely. AllVoices is an Employee Feedback Management Platform (EFMP) and EasyLlama partner that companies can use to systematically ask for, accept, analyze, and act on employee feedback of all kinds. Employers leverage AllVoices for building trust with employees, increasing retention, mitigating risk, and improving employee well-being, all while maintaining SOC2 and SOX compliance.

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Different forms of remote harassment

Remote harassment can take a variety of forms, though it will most likely be verbal or visual. Verbal remote harassment might include racial, gendered, or ableist slurs or name-calling, or repeat, unwelcome requests for dates or sex. Verbal harassment can be common in both in-person or remote workplaces, especially since comments can be made just as easily in a chat app or video call as in person.

Being clear and straightforward when speaking with remote coworkers is a best practice to prevent any perceived harassment. Tone can be more difficult to read via email or private messaging platforms, so it may be best to avoid what some may consider “good-natured” teasing or sarcasm via email or private messaging, especially without the nuance of facial expressions or tone of voice.

Visual remote harassment might include sending sexually suggestive photos or memes, sending unsolicited personal nudes, or exposing themselves on a video conference call. Just like with in-person harassment, remote harassment includes any unwelcome behaviors that are frequent or severe enough that a reasonable person would think they create a hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo is another inappropriate behavior that can take place during remote work. This vicious type of sexual harassment, translated as “something for something,” is where one person is asked to perform a sexual favor, or perhaps share sexual photos or messages, in order to keep their job or get a promotion.

Workplace harassment impacts individuals differently

According to a 2021 BBC article, the effects of workplace harassment can be severe and may last all the way into retirement. Common impacts of harassment on an employee can include unemployment due to voluntarily leaving or being fired in retaliation, as well as lost wages and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Some individuals may not feel ready to come forward with their experience right away, which can prolong either the harassment or their feelings of anxiety about it, and may even prevent them from filing a claim against their harasser due to a statute of limitations.

Workplace harassment can also have a major impact on overall employee retention and morale. The 2021 AllVoices poll found that 52% reported having been in a situation where they did not feel psychologically safe at work. This lack of comfortability in the workplace can stifle creativity, prevent new ideas from being shared, and reduce engagement, even for those who have witnessed but not experienced harassment. Additionally, 34% of respondents had left a job due to workplace harassment concerns that went unresolved, and according to SHRM, the cost to replace an employee can reach up to nine months' value of the individual's compensation.

How employers can help

Remote workplaces that invest time and effort to prevent unwelcome behaviors demonstrate their concern in providing a harassment-free workplace environment. Let’s dive into the best strategies to become a proactive workplace and protect your employees’ best interests.

Develop a comprehensive anti-harassment policy

Your anti-harassment policy should describe all types of remote workplace harassment and provide scenarios if possible. Ideally, you'll want to develop a zero-tolerance anti-harassment policy to prevent employees from participating in inappropriate behavior. Have a strict policy that states an employee will lose employment if they break the rules.

Make Employees Feel Safe to Report

Working remotely can feel isolating or like there might be less accountability than working in person. Employees should always be made to feel safe in reporting any issues to their supervisors, particularly when it comes to harassment. Ensure employees that their complaints will be fully investigated in a timely manner, that their harasser will be held accountable for their actions, and that there will be no repercussions against them for exercising their right to speak up.

Provide Channels to Report Harassment

Regular review of the company’s harassment policy with an HR specialist and/or a supervisor will help employees keep their options top of mind when it comes to reporting. Employees should have simple access to multiple communication channels, such as an online form, email, video calls, and more. There are also many software systems developed specifically for providing employees with an outlet to report harassment to their employer, via an app or online application. Remote work can make documentation of harassment a bit easier, and organizations should encourage employees screenshot or save and share with HR any photos or messages that concern them.

Regular Check-Ins with the Team

Having constant communication with your team is very important so you can be aware of patterns and changes in behavior, especially in a remote workplace. Try to have both formal and informal interactions with employees and set some time apart for 1-on-1 sessions as well. You can also communicate best practices among co-workers during meetings to encourage participation and team-building activities.

A Powerful Workplace Harassment Training Course

Training is one of the most important measures to take in order to avoid harassment in the workplace. Education can help promote positive behavioral change in those with the inclination toward harassment, and can teach all employees how to do their part in creating a workplace that is free from unwelcome and inappropriate behaviors. After learning from EasyLlama Sexual Harassment Prevention training, employees are more likely to be aware of their impact on others and think twice about engaging in behaviors not appropriate of the workplace.

Our Sexual Harassment Prevention course even includes specific modules focused on remote workplace harassment and online or social media harassment. With Hollywood-produced videos featuring real-life scenarios from a remote workplace, employees can fully resonate with the information presented and learn from it. Build a safer remote workplace for your employees with our award-winning training that follows EEOC guidelines by covering not just sexual harassment, but all forms of workplace harassment, including discrimination and retaliation.

Join the proactive workplaces educating their employees and preventing sexual harassment with online compliance training from EasyLlama. Schedule a demo today to learn more, or get a free preview of our Sexual Harassment Prevention training.

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