Remote work

The workplace went virtual. The harassment stayed real.

Over one-third of US workers say they were subjected to harassment while working remotely.
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· 6 min read

One common first step in onboarding: Watch a dated, low budget, and guaranteed-to-be-cringey sexual harassment training video featuring Brian cornering Carol in the break room to make outrageous comments about her appearance. The video might instruct new hires about the company’s zero-tolerance policy for hostile work environments. The scene plays again; this time, the new hires have the opportunity to watch Jim see-something-say-something and help out coworker Carol. At the end, possibly a quiz: A passing six out of 10 suggests you won’t be a creep at work.  

But those workplace scenarios depicted pre-pandemic life and pre-pandemic conceptions of harassment. The abrupt shift to remote work turned the social dynamics of the workplace, including the darker aspects, on their head, in some cases making it more difficult to identify, observe, and, possibly, report.

Waiting for host help to join the meeting

Haley Swenson, the deputy director at New America’s Better Life Lab, which researches sexual harassment, told HR Brew that at first some employees thought remote work could solve harassment problems: “They thought, ‘Great, I can go home, put my head down, and just do my work without comments.’”

But some workers quickly realized WFH wasn’t exactly utopian: Harassment could still continue, and, in some cases, transitioning the workplace from a physical space to cyberspace may have allowed harassment to become more insidious.

“There’s a lack of oversight that is just inherent to leaving the workplace,” Swenson told HR Brew. “In an office, someone will maybe overhear a comment. There isn’t that safety net on a Zoom call. It’s more private, which can embolden abusers and leave people vulnerable. This kind of invisibility can be exploited by folks who were already interested in exploiting power dynamics. This isn’t to say that there’s going to be more sexual harassers now than there were before, but there are opportunities in isolation for people to take advantage.”

And according to 2021’s State of Workplace Harassment, a report commissioned by AllVoices, an online platform for employees to report workplace harassment, 38% of 800+ full-time employees polled in the US experienced harassment through email, video conferencing, chat apps, or by phone;  24% of American employees surveyed believe harassment continues or worsens on remote channels.

OOOver it

Particularly in a tight labor market, HR hopes employees will report their concerns ASAP rather than walk out the door. Swenson says in the past, some workers stayed in harassing environments out of economic necessity. Now, some workers realize they have options.

“I think some people are feeling more empowered that if an organization isn't serving them and isn't sort of being proactive and letting them know that they take those kinds of concerns seriously, they might just be quitting toxic workplaces,” Swenson said. “They are feeling that it's too uphill to even take on the challenge of trying to address something like harassment within their workplace, so they quit.”

According to AllVoices’ The State of Workplace Harassment report, 50% of workers who experienced harassment did report their harassment, with most selecting to report to their direct manager (55.3%) followed by HR (36.4%). However, 34% of employees have left a job due to unresolved harassment concerns.

Laura Palumbo the communications director of The National Sexual Violence Resource Center explains that getting employees to report, which is always difficult, is even more of a challenge during remote work.

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“[Anonymity] could help employees reach out for help, but it can make employees feel very disconnected and then make them less likely to report, because there aren’t open lines of communication [with management],” Palumbo told HR Brew.  “Also, they may not know whether what they’ve experienced applies to the definition of sexual harassment, because the training they received has talked about workplace harassment as someone putting a hand on your shoulder or something that happens in a physical workplace.”

HR Brew asked experts how to overcome these challenges and get every employee who may experience harassment to report.

Their recs:

  • No guesswork. Matthew Stegmeier, director of operations at Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now), told HR Brew companies should be crystal clear about the steps they’ll take to address complaints: “We’re almost two years into this pandemic. Some people might have been hired at your company at this point without ever setting foot in your physical office. And so they might not even know who the HR person is to go to! So I think really laying out for your staff, ‘If you experience misconduct, if you experience something inappropriate in these channels, here’s how we’re going to handle it.’ That does a lot of the work for signaling to employees that this is something that they can come forward about.”
  • It is “that bad.” Swenson advises being clear that employees don’t need a “smoking gun” in order to report. Sexual harassment is not “clear cut,” and if employees feel uncomfortable, they should speak up as soon as possible about “these kind of long-simmering, toxic relationships that [tend to] underlie experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace.”
  • Multiple avenues. Claire Schmidt, founder and CEO of AllVoices, recommends offering third-party options for reporting (a service her company offers): “Oftentimes employees may not feel comfortable going directly to HR or managers. Using a third-party platform, HR can look at general trends and spot teams or business units with repeated problems to dive into further.”

Swenson agrees with this approach. She wants as many low-stakes reporting options as possible, worrying that remote work unintentionally creates barriers to speaking up. “Putting things in writing over email can seem a lot more formal than going into HR to have a conversation,” Swenson explained. “Employees may be intimidated by the task of finding the words for their experience and putting them into a formal correspondence.”

Sexual harassment is the cockroach of HR quandries: Despite your best efforts at prevention programming, if you work with people, the potential for inappropriate behavior will remain in some capacity. Like any unpleasant infestation, the biggest mistake HR can make, according to Scmidt, is being afraid to look.

“Companies think if they don’t look under the hood, they won’t have a problem,” she told HR Brew. “That’s simply not the case.”

With many organizations planning to continue with some sort of hybrid-remote workplace into next year, it’s never too late to understand how hybrid work will change the problem—and make sure Carol knows her employer will defend her against the virtual Break Room Brians of the world.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Susanna Vogel via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SusannaVogel) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.