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Remote work was once considered a privilege. Requests to work from home were largely denied and granted only in special cases. As the March 2020 lockdown went into full effect and office buildings emptied, once bustling downtown cores became near ghost towns. For the last fifteen months, remote work has been the status quo. Fears of low employee productivity have largely been allayed. In fact, some organizations have spent in the millions building up VPNs and infrastructure to enable remote work. Once the pandemic has passed, employees in many industries can look forward to a hybrid model – a mix of in-office and remote work. As a consequence, some organizations have significantly reduced their physical office spaces.
In an April 2020 blog, at a time when remote work was in its infancy, RT partner Christine Thomlinson noted that, “just because employees are working at home doesn’t mean they can’t be subject to harassment and discrimination; instead it means that harassment and discrimination can take different forms.” 1
It has become evident that notwithstanding a global pandemic and remote work, the bullies of the workforce are as active as ever, but with much of their harassing behaviour taking place via video conferencing and various chat applications. As a workplace investigator, I have observed some of the new ways in which workplace bullying and harassment occur.
- An employee who commented about a co-worker’s partner who appeared in the background of a Zoom call.
- An employee who made inappropriate comments about a colleague’s home while on a video conferencing call.
- A student who unmuted his microphone, made lewd comments and showed inappropriate videos during a virtual class.
- A manager who had unreasonable expectations about how much employees should use Microsoft Teams.
- A manager who required employees to attend unnecessary and excessive “check-in” meetings throughout the day, thus interfering with employee productivity.
- A manager who sent chat messages to allegedly check whether employees were at their desks.
- An employee who spoke over colleagues who signalled that they were about to speak.
- A frustrated supervisor who disconnected a telephone call with a subordinate.
- An employee who made inappropriate posts on social media about colleagues.
- An employee who sent messages of a sexual nature over chat applications. See my colleague Sophie Martel’s April 2020 blog on the inappropriate use of chat applications by employees.
Harassment in the era of remote work is exacerbated by the lack of witnesses to one-on-one interactions that often take place on a video conferencing call. There are no colleagues within earshot to witness a boss yelling and/or displaying aggressive behaviour towards a subordinate. The only witnesses may very well be an employee’s partner or their young children in a neighbouring bedroom. Witnesses to harassment who are not employees create a layer of complexity to workplace investigations, a subject matter for another day. It should also be noted that when work and workplace harassment enter one’s home – that sanctuary no longer provides the respite that it once did. The home is no longer the castle providing escape and a measure of insulation from difficulties at the workplace. The lines become blurred and the toll on one’s mental health can be significant.
Undeniably, the location of work has changed and so has the workplace, but have your policies kept apace? HR professionals should review their policies to ensure that they address the novel ways in which workplace harassment now occurs.
Organizations should put their minds to addressing and mitigating the types of behaviours that constitute harassment in the virtual workplace and should include examples of these in their policies. For example, a note on proper video conferencing etiquette would be appropriate. This is not to suggest that existing policies are no longer applicable. They certainly are. However, broadening the types of behaviour that may be indicative of harassment provides a number of benefits:
- It provides guidance to employees on what behaviours are appropriate or not as they adapt to working remotely.
- It ensures that policies are current and relevant to the changing times.
- It reinforces your organization’s commitment to fostering a respectful workplace.
Finally, reviewing workplace harassment and sexual harassment policies at least annually is the law in many jurisdictions, and it is good practice too.
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