Sexual Harassment in a Remote Work Environment? It’s Still a Big Problem

In the past few months, our perception of “remote work” has evolved considerably amid the pandemic.

On the surface, a lot of employees and employers have actually found some benefits from this disruption—intended or not.

Unfortunately, this abrupt shift has also provided new avenues for one of the biggest challenges that HR leaders have to manage and address: sexual harassment in the workplace.


What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like in a Virtual Space?

Employers may assume that a physical distance decreases the potential for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, as experts reveal, the issue seems to emerge more frequently in this evolved work environment.

“Never before on this scale have employers been asked to accommodate the ‘whole person’ at work when answering the needs of remote employees,” said Brenan German, President of Bright Talent, Inc., an HR consultancy that helps companies optimize their employee experience. “The pandemic has opened a window into people’s lives that can be exploited if not managed appropriately.”

These days, employees have a literal glimpse into their co-workers homes, bedrooms, personal relationships and many more private elements that weren’t as easily accessible within the physical office space.

From a manager’s perspective, the adverse is true: there’s less visibility over the entire team. Blind spots and oversight are more common and it’s much harder to read the dynamic of interactions between employees.

What Defines Harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and many other federal and state agencies clearly define and prohibit sexual harassment. Whether physical or virtual, sexual harassment could be verbal or written harassment, including unwelcome sexual advances, jokes of a sexual nature or other sexually charged comments.

It could also present itself as a “quid pro quo request” surrounding promotions, approved time off and other favorable employment decisions, whether explicit or implicit.

It’s difficult to recognize inappropriate behavior in company messaging chats, personal and group text message threads or unmonitored phone calls. Sitting behind a computer at home, with the perception of a more casual work environment with less oversight, may allow workers to be bolder and less concerned about their words and actions.

It’s also been reported that the digital space tends to bring out an increase in the frequency and severity of sexual and off-color comments because a single message can lead to an ongoing and unrelenting stream of input from a group.

Consider how much bullying occurs online and how quickly it can get out of control. This is the risk in a remote environment as well.

What Can HR Do?

The most important first step is to set expectations for what is appropriate and what is considered sexual harassment.

“The pandemic and mobile technology have changed the employee experience forever in the sense that employee experience no longer ends when an employee leaves the workplace,” German said. “It transfers to every device an employee uses. If they are not doing so already, organizations need to advance their people practices to provide a safe and healthy work environment, beyond nine to five and the confines of the office.”

Employers must educate employees on this. While many states, including California, mandate sexual harassment training, consider special training sessions on preventing sexual harassment in a remote environment.

A one-time training may check a box, but employees learn how important a topic is by the emphasis a company puts on it. Communicate the expectations regularly and provide tools for recognizing, confronting and reporting it if it does happen. Encourage workers to stand up for each other and provide them with suggestions for how to do so.

HR can also ask managers to pay attention to changes in employee behavior. Ask questions around engagement in typical activities. For example, has someone stopped participating in team meetings, or are they hesitating when asked to work with a particular individual? Human Resources teams and managers can work together to identify and address any concerns with the employee.

If a complaint is received, the employer must take it seriously and investigate quickly and fairly. The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) sample policy provides suggested procedures for handling complaints and investigations.

Employer & Employee Resources

There are many tools and services available to support employers and employees dealing with sexual harassment.

  • Employee Assistance Program: An EAP could be a great resource for employees seeking confidential support. EAPs are a common workplace benefit and are designed to help workers with personal or work-related issues before they become unmanageable. Some employers may be able to offer an EAP through their insurance carrier, however an EAP can also be purchased as a standalone product. Your employee benefits broker can discuss available options.
  • Anonymous Feedback Hotline or App: Reporting sexual harassment may feel uncomfortable for an employee. Providing an anonymous reporting channel could be a way to ensure a safe environment to provide the feedback. Apps like Kendr allow employees to share anonymous feedback with their employer, as well as ask questions and report harassment.
  • Training & HR Support: As we discussed above, sexual harassment training is not only required in California, but essential in the fight to keep employees safe. While there are many options available, training, compliance and HR support is available through platforms like ThinkHR. For those that prefer a more individualized approach, HR consultants can custom tailor training and advice to your specific situation and organization.

Talk to your broker or a trusted advisor if you’d like a referral to a consultant. Remember, as an employer, you have a duty to protect your employees, investigate all complaints, and take appropriate measures to stop the behavior, including disciplinary action. The most effective step to take, however, is prevention.

If you have any questions about this topic or if you need more information or resources, just let me know.

About Jessica Liu

As an employee benefits broker, Jessica Liu bridges her knowledge, experience and creativity to help organizations maximize their employee benefits programs. With a strong background in Human Resources, operations management, and payroll and benefit administration, she helps clients find strategic ways to solve their organizational challenges through the most appropriate solutions for their goals and need.

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