Sexual Harassment and Bullying During Telecommuting

by Evil HR Lady on April 8, 2020

We all know cyberbullying is a problem. Perhaps we think about it as a teenage problem with the mean girls mocking someone over Snapchat. But, it can be a problem in the adult workplace.

With tons of people working from home now–many of whom never worked from home before–you need to be aware of employee relationships. Here are some things to consider.

You can harass, bully, and discriminate remotely

Sexual harassment and bullying don’t require a physical presence. Inappropriate comments, undermining, and general bad behavior can all happen remotely. 

The virtual world may make people feel immune from normal workplace behavior. Everyone jokes about not having to wear pants–and, in fact, Walmart reports that sales of shirts are up while sales of pants are down. It’s great for a Twitter share, but it demonstrates the relaxed attitudes that people have.

It can be more challenging to monitor and investigate complaints, as there really can be no witnesses to lousy behavior other than the people directly involved. 

Adult bullying doesn’t (generally) involve stealing lunch money. It focuses on verbal bullying, passive-aggressive behavior, and cyberbullying. All of this continues in a virtual workspace. Watch out for it.

The relaxed attitude of working from home many take people off their best behavior. Remind everyone that the code of conduct exists even if everyone is at home.

Video conferencing problems and solutions

Everyone is using Zoom, and it’s getting a bad reputation for its problems. But, no video software is perfect, and problems can exist. You probably saw the viral videos of people taking their computers to the bathroom, getting up without turning off their camera and revealing their lack of pants, and the innocent one of the boss who turned herself into a potato.

These can be funny, but they can also be done on purpose. Employment attorney Jon Hyman got his zoom screen hijacked by someone who wanted to share porn during his webinar. 

To help lower risk:

  • When you’re using such tools, lock them down the best you can so that people can’t share screens without the host’s permission.
  • Remind your staff at the beginning of any video conference that their cameras are on.
  • If someone starts walking with their camera going, remind them that they are on screen.
  • Have a pants (or skirt!) dress code and enforce it. Yes, you won’t see a problem until it’s too late, but then your pantsless employee can’t excuse it as accidental.
  • Do not require people to leave their cameras on at all times to make sure they are working. 

Take complaints seriously

You should always take harassment and bullying requests seriously; working from home does not change that. The solutions may vary. Allowing someone to use audio only on a video conference may be the solution. Requiring all communication to be written can be another. It’s not easy to do that in an office, but a written record is easy to obtain when people work from home.

While everyone is stressed out, don’t excuse bad behavior. Deal with any complaints immediately–waiting until things go back to normal won’t help the situation and just empowers the bullies and harassers.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kurt Nemes May 13, 2020 at 7:25 pm

I loved this article. Do you have any data that might report whether sexual harassment complaints have gone down or up during our virtual work reality? Also, I’m wondering whether “essential workers” who do have to show up are being sexually harassed at the same rate as before. Thank you!

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Evil HR Lady May 14, 2020 at 2:06 pm

I have no idea! But those are excellent questions.

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