Remote Work and Sexual Harassment – It Can Happen Over the Computer

The COVID pandemic forced the world to pivot and adapt. It changed the way we look at our lives and our careers. The traditional workplace had to be reevaluated as millions began to work from home. The evolution and adaptation to working remotely happened fast and, in most cases, seamlessly.

As the perception of work environments shifts, so does the definition of workplace harassment. When work becomes home-based, there is a chance that harassment will follow employees into their homes. This type of invasion can have devastating impacts on a person’s mental well-being and the health of their family.

Identifying Harassment’s Red Flags While Working from Home

Forbes magazine recently put together the Forbes Human Resources Council, a meeting of eight human resource executives from various industries. These experts recently discussed a few of the red flags associated with workplace harassment as there was a mass migration of employees to remote work environments. Below are some key points each of them made:

  • Sanjiv Agarwal (HR Professional at Swiss Re) – He sees extended remote-work conditions as more opportunities for problematic behaviors like badgering female colleagues to video chat, hounding coworkers after normal business hours, and behaving inappropriate conduct on video calls. Managers should stay vigilant and address the behaviors promptly.
  • Jenna Hinrichsen (Director of Recruitment Strategy for Advanced RPO) – She thinks the safety of remote work can lead to behavior that is too relaxed during video calls. Coworkers and bosses can make inappropriate gestures and comments regarding someone’s personal appearance. A boss or coworkers should not make others feel uncomfortable or discriminated against. The comments and gestures should be reported to HR as soon as possible. 
  • Tammy Kelley (Senior Vice President Human Resources at Bethany Christian Services) – She has seen workplace harassment seep into remote work naturally. Living in a tech-heavy world can force lines to blur. People are used to joking around or arguing with friends on social media. Often, unprofessional tones and crass jokes can flow right into a Zoom meeting or a work group chat. Sometimes, the technological rules of engagement need reevaluation.
  • Rachel Lyubovitzky (Co-Founder, CEO, and Chairwoman at EverythingBenefits) – She knows virtual harassment can occur just as easily as face-to-face harassment. Employees should always report any messages, phone calls, or emails that contain hostile, inappropriate, or offensive language or pictures.
  • Tish McFadden (HR Professional at Maryland Oncology Hematology) – She affirms that working remotely causes social cues to relax too much. If a worker is trapped in a boring conversation at the office, they can walk away. When they are working from home, there is no escaping an incessant stream of messages or texts. And they may not have anything to do with work. If the messages make someone uncomfortable, they should tell the sender that it needs to stop. 
  • Bryan Passman (Co-founder and CEO of Hunter + Esquire) – He wants to avoid the use of unprofessional or obscenity-laced language. Not only can this type of behavior be exhaustive, but it can also affect families. In a lot of cases, remote employees have children in the house, often within hearing distance of their parents while they work. It does not hurt anyone to be professional. 
  • Karla Reffold (Chief Operating Officer at Orpheus Cyber) – She wants workers to avoid being left out of a conversation. This can be discriminatory and a form of harassment. Or it can happen accidentally as some workers come back to the office and others are left at home. Open lines of communication and consulting with supervisors and coworkers are essential for a successful business. 
  • Charmaine Marie Smith (Chief People Officer for Computer Services Inc.) – He addresses inappropriate comments made on work forums. She thinks there is not much difference between being in the office or working from home when it comes to workplace harassment. Text messages, emails, instant messages, or team meetings can all deliver harassing, inappropriate comments. Remote working can lead to company emails loaded with improper pictures or jokes. Any inappropriate conduct like this must be reported.

The Big Picture of Harassment 

Sexual harassment can be defined as inappropriate verbal or physical behaviors that offend, intimidate, discriminate, harass, or create hostile workplaces. This behavior may come in the form of unwanted sexual advances or physical conduct, sexual innuendos, or requesting sexual favors. These behaviors can explicitly or implicitly build hostile workplaces.

In the last two years, the workplace expansion to remote means definitions have expanded too. Because of virtual workplaces, terms like Zoom masturbation are added to the cultural lexicon.

In a recent survey conducted by Women at Work: A Global Outlook, the past two years have seen increases of workplace hostilities toward women, from 52% to 59%. An even 50% of working women claim they have endured microaggressions. Almost 15% of the women experienced various forms of harassment. Only 31% of these instances were reported. 

Examples of this harassment and microaggressions while working remotely included:

  • Undesired physical advances
  • Offensive sexual comments 
  • Having their judgment questioned or patronized because they are women
  • Being interrupted or talked over
  • Disparaging comments regarding appearance, mannerisms, race, or sexual orientation 

These non-inclusive behaviors occurred most often to women of color and L.G.B.T.Q. women.

Project Include, a nonprofit focusing on accelerating diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, recently reported significant increases in gender, ethnicity, and race-based harassment while working from home. Almost 25% of employees who are 50 years old and older have seen an increase in age-based hostilities.

Under California law, Title VII and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. The risk of sexual harassment tends to rise in remote environments and the reasons for this increase include: 

  • Misinterpretation of the rules – Employees thinking policies and rules work differently outside of the physical workspace
  • Decreased support – Home-based employees have a lack of access to HR 
  • Easy access to substances – Closer proximity to alcohol or substances may contribute to poor decisions and offensive behavior
  • Constant access to virtual communications – Too much communicating between coworkers can lead to messages turning into inappropriate comments  

Employers are the ambassadors responsible for creating a healthy and safe working environment, either in the physical workplace or working remotely. A company’s existing policies should provide a framework ensuring a workplace that is free from harassment.