As organizations adapted to virtual work environments over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did sexual harassment. From pantsless zoom meetings to inappropriate emoji use and everything in between — surveys and anecdotal stories alike confirm that sexual harassment is alive and well in online workspaces.
A 2021 report by Deloitte surveyed women working in service and knowledge industries in 10 countries and found that more than half had experienced some form of harassment or microaggression in 2020. In another survey of U.S. workers by TalentLMS and The Purple Campaign, nearly 30% of workers said they had experienced “unwelcome behavior” in the virtual workplace via video calls, texts, email, or on other online platforms.
Jennifer Brown, a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert, told the New York Times that when organizations shift to virtual work, employees can fall under the false impression that workplace rules of conduct are limited to the physical workplace.
“Since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply,” Brown says.
Importantly, harassment on digital platforms can feel more subtle than harassment in the physical workplace, and employees might feel hesitant to report behavior that’s in a potential “grey area.”
Defining digital harassment
Harassment is defined by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission,
(EEOC) as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”
To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive.
Most employees can recognize signs of harassment in the physical workplace — like inappropriate comments, sexual gestures, or unwanted touching. But in the digital workplace, sexual harassment can take on new forms.
Digital Harassment might include:
- Unsolicited communications through messaging apps
- Inappropriate comments or images sent via email, chat, or text message
- Sexual or discriminatory comments during video or phone meetings
- Commenting on a colleague’s appearance during video meetings
Digital workplaces = increased risk for harassment
Virtual work tends to “take on a more casual tone” than in-person work, says Brigitte Gawenda Kimichik, JD, author of Play Nice: Playground Rules for Respect in the Workplace. This relaxed environment coupled with the isolated reality of working from home can create a workplace culture where harassment can thrive behind screens.
The EEOC suggests that decentralized workplaces actually put employees at an increased risk of harassment. In these environments, managers may feel (or actually be) unaccountable for online interactions between employees.
Virtual work also increases the likelihood that employees will use alcohol or drugs while on the clock — both of which can provoke unprofessional behavior.
How training might help
To quell online harassment, organizations must take an active stance and adapt their sexual harassment training and policies to account for modern, virtual workplaces.
“It’s really important to make it clear to employees that the same policies about sexual harassment applied in the physical workplace also apply in the remote workforce,” Shea Holman, director of law & policy at The Purple Campaign, told EBN. “Showing people not only what sexual harassment looks like in the remote context, but tailoring your anti-harassment training to the specific remote context.
In the Purple Campaign’s recent survey, respondents were asked how their workplace’s sexual harassment training could be improved.
Here’s what they want to see:
- Address “gray areas” – Sometimes, sexual harassment is obvious. Oftentimes, it’s not. Employees want sexual harassment training to address the nuances and subtleties of harassment, like microaggressions, unwanted flirting in the workplace, or navigating situations that involve alcohol use.
- Discuss online harassment –Thirty-eight (38) percent of survey respondents reported that their sexual harassment training did not include cases of online harassment. Employees want their training to discuss how to identify and respond to sexual harassment on Zoom calls, social media, and other digital communication platforms.
- Replace outdated training materials – If your harassment training materials date back to the ‘90s, it’s time to replace them. Training programs must be modern and relevant to engage employees and help them relate.
- Make training gender-inclusive – If you want to create an inclusive and respectful workplace, gender-inclusive training is non-negotiable. Employees want sexual harassment training to apply to all employees, regardless of their gender expression or identity.
- Focus on prevention – Employees are tired of training that only teaches how to respond to sexual harassment. Instead, they want programs that are designed to stop incidents of harassment from occurring in the first place.
“As work environments continue to change with new ways of working, training materials need to adapt to remain relevant and effective,” Christina Gialleli, director of people operations at training-software company Epignosis told EBN. “One of the best ways to figure out what your training might be missing is to simply ask employees for feedback.”
About the Author
Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others. She writes weekly nonprofit-specific content for 501c.com.