We Protect Workers

Unfortunately, distance didn’t reduce workplace harassment

The pandemic brought about enormous changes in many workplaces. Many people shifted to a work-from-home model. Others continued working in crucial positions but with the addition of masks and social distancing.

Some observers had hoped that these changes to the workplace would drive a major reduction in workplace harassment. Wouldn’t people be safer from unwanted attention with these changes in place?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, according to a recent analysis by the New York Times.

Consider this view of the problem. Harassment is basically when someone takes another person’s protected characteristic – such as gender, race, color, sexual orientation, national origin, age or disability – and uses it to marginalize that person or hold power over them. Ultimately, it can give rise to a hostile work environment, where people feel unsafe or inhibited from doing their job.

Harassment can involve words, pictures, cartoons, jokes and behavior. It is sometimes done publicly if the harasser believes they have a majority behind them. Just as often, however, it is done privately.

A lot of remote work is done through private channels like instant messaging, texts, phone calls or videoconferences. Most of those channels are not monitored by managers, and some people have felt emboldened to say whatever they wanted without witnesses.

Informality can exacerbate harassment

According to at least one diversity and inclusion expert interviewed by the Times, the air of informality produced by the pandemic was itself a problem. Casualness seems at first to be non-threatening, but it can be used to mask hostility. Moreover, it can be hard to tell in written form whether the person is intentionally baiting someone because there are no tonal cues.

“Since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply,” the expert said.

Stress can produce more harassment

On top of the risks of privacy and informality, we also know that people are more likely to engage in harassment when they are stressed. They sometimes snap and get angry. They can get careless of their tone and message.

People have been under a lot of pressure during the pandemic. Some people are genuinely traumatized after losing loved ones to the disease. Others are dealing with economic stress, with many people or their spouses losing jobs or hours.

How bad is the problem?

A survey by Deloitte called “Women at Work: A Global Outlook” found that 52% of the women surveyed had experienced some type of harassment or microaggression in the past year, during the pandemic. These included things like having their judgment questioned because they are women, negative remarks about their appearance, and disparagement of their communication style, race, sexual orientation or caregiving status.

Another report, this one from the nonprofit Project Include, said that 25% of their survey respondents in the tech industry had experienced an increase in gender-based harassment over the past year. Another 10% reported an increase in race- or ethnicity-based hostility, and 23% reported increased age-based harassment or hostility.

It appears that people who are inclined toward harassment will find a way to do it regardless of the circumstances.

Employers have a duty to intervene

When employers become aware of harassment in the workplace, they are under a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to stop the harassment. Unfortunately, the pandemic has left many employers woefully unprepared. They have been dealing with making it physically possible for people to work remotely; they haven’t necessarily taken the time to evaluate how these new policies facilitate harassment.

Companies should have a policy forbidding remote harassment, and it should be reasonably expansive. They should set up a mechanism for reporting problems that doesn’t rely on the strictest definition of workplace harassment. Instead, they should encourage workers to speak up.

If you have been experiencing harassment at work, we hope you will step forward. You may want to talk to an employment law attorney before you take any concrete steps. Doing so can allow you to reflect on how serious the problem is and develop a plan to initiate an effective complaint without risking retaliation.