Policing the virtual workplace
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Policing the virtual workplace

With cases of sexual harassment having increased during lockdown, it’s time to bridge the gap between standards of conduct in the physical and virtual work environment

woman suffer from Internet bullying
Credit:RyanKing999/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The results of studies carried out during lockdown tell an interesting story about issues of misconduct in a virtual working environment. Far from going away, issues like sexual harassment can become more common when the boundaries between work life and home life are increasingly blurred, and perpetrators can hide behind a computer screen.

COVID-19 has seen an upsurge in women's experience of online sexual harassment whilst working from home, according to research carried out by the charity Rights of Women.

This remote harassment has taken a number of forms, much of it online through email, texts, social media and via Zoom, Teams and other video conferencing tools.

"The law hasn't changed - it is still a legal requirement that employers prevent bullying and harassment and to investigate where complaints are made," says James Froud, head of employment at City law firm McCarthy Denning. "That hasn't changed, but the environment in which people are operating has."

"You might think harassment would decline in a remote working situation, but it seems from various surveys and reports over the last 18 months that if anything it has been the opposite," he continues. "When colleagues are invited into one's home, when they otherwise wouldn't have been, it can sometimes open up opportunities to those who want to exploit them."

Froud says that while aspects of remote working have been around for many years now, with some organisations' policies having been updated, to a point, to reflect this change in the working environment, he adds: “I don't think many would have anticipated the mass adoption of video calling and the various platforms that can be used for that purpose."

Employers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to delay and frustrate the justice processes for women who do come forward to report harassment
Deeba Syed, senior legal officer, Rights of Women

Where reports of harassment have been made during the pandemic, employers are accused of being too slow off the mark.

According to the Rights of Women survey, 72% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work said they did not feel their employer is doing enough to protect and support them.

Social distancing and lockdown restrictions, in addition to the wider pressures of the pandemic, have conspired to stall investigations and disciplinary action.

"Employers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to delay and frustrate the justice processes for women who do come forward to report harassment," says Deeba Syed, senior legal officer, Rights of Women. "In doing so, they continue to neglect their legal responsibility to prevent and protect women from sexual harassment at work."

Unwanted advances on social media

One area of business life where inappropriate behaviour is being more frequently reported is social media.

When Melissa Green, a freelance videographer, photographer and video editor, took to social media to network and share some of her content, she did not expect - or seek out - the inappropriate advances she received from a number of men.

"All I am doing is putting my work out there and some people think it is okay to try and flirt. Luckily my experiences weren't horrible and they did back off after some convincing, but the fact it happens at all is out of order," she says.

"Some may see it as harmless, and in a normal social setting like a pub or club it would be, but where this is happening is technically a place of work and business, and people wouldn't be allowed to get away with it [in the workplace]."

The problem, according to Sarah Hills, a director at PR company Rein4ce, is that professional online networks such as LinkedIn are too often treated like online dating sites. Writing in her blog on International Women's Day, Hills said the issue was around receiving unsolicited advances in a professional setting.

"In today’s digital world, social media platforms like LinkedIn are an extension of the workplace and should be a safe and welcoming place for women who want to network with other professionals without being on the receiving end of inappropriate approaches," she wrote.

Getting rid of the grey areas

The challenge for the insurance industry going forward will be creating and sustaining an environment where all workers feel safe, valued and respected, whether they are operating in a virtual or physical office.

For its part, Lloyd's has seen a 16-point improvement in individuals feeling they were listened to and taken seriously when they raised a concern, according to its 2020 Culture Survey - up to 57% last year, compared with just 41% in 2019.

It is solid progress, two years on from the publication of the market's ‘standards of business conduct’, which require individuals to act with integrity, be respectful and speak up about abusive and/or inappropriate behaviour.

Make it clear to your employees that harassment is illegal even under strained work conditions
Rosie Cairnes, vice president, APAC, Skillsoft

But the 2020 Culture Survey still found that just half of respondents would feel comfortable raising concerns about behaviour in the market, only a slight improvement over 45% in 2019.

Over the years, the market's reputation has been darkened with allegations of sexual harassment. As it adjusts to a hybrid form of working, it is clear further steps need to be taken.

According to Rosie Cairnes, vice president, APAC at educational technology firm Skillsoft, there is a need for greater clarity about what is right and wrong, whether working remotely or in the office.

"The only way to rid an organisation of cultural and moral grey areas, which may lead to bad behaviour or judgement, is to create a rulebook for employees and employers to follow," she says.

"A formal code of conduct is the tool we recommend and the approach with which we have seen the most success. It creates clear guidelines, sets expectations, reduces ambiguity and gives everyone the clearest view possible of what is right or wrong in their place of work.”

Even tech-savvy companies may need to re-evaluate their policies and remind staff of the rules in a more virtual working environment, she notes, observing that Google recently asked its employees to monitor their internal message board posts more closely following a spike in racist and abusive posts.

"The surge of employees working from home due to the pandemic response has created a new urgency we can’t ignore," she says. "It’s important to remember that during an outbreak such as COVID-19, all employees are operating under increased stress.

"This can affect their mental health and lead to increased harassment. Make it clear to your employees that harassment is illegal even under strained work conditions."

Harassment: Five steps to protect your staff

(Source: Skillsoft)

1. Help employees adapt to remote work environments.

  • Encourage employees to survey their surroundings for items that would be inappropriate to display at work, even when working from private spaces.

  • Remind employees that they are still at work and are discouraged from letting their guard down, particularly when having conversations in informational channels such as social and chat forums.

  • Limit the use of unsecured communication channels when communicating with peers to discourage security breaches that can lead to information leakage and unwelcome intrusions known as “Zoom bombing.”

2. Carefully review your harassment policies and update language related to remote work to ensure expectations are well documented.

3. Reinforce your anonymous reporting hotlines. Ensure your remote employees know who to turn to for help when their normal check-ins with management might be infrequent or through new channels.

4. Evaluate your compliance training program and audit classes for coverage of remote work environments.

5. Update employee pledges for those new to remote work to ensure they understand new risks and compliance practices.

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