With so many people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, logic would dictate that instances of workplace sexual harassment would have plummeted since people are not in the office or any other facility together.
Logic would be wrong. Sexual harassment of employees by other employees or superiors has moved online, according to recent reports.
In fact, since the pandemic has started, the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found that there has been a 20% increase in sexual harassment complaints among American workers. The increase is not surprising considering an earlier study by Stop Street in 2018, which found that 41% of women experienced sexual harassment via text, phone and the internet.
One of the problems is that when people are working from home and dress codes are out the window, it’s easy for people to be less formal, which can also lead to less civility and professionalism.
Also, some people may be bolder when not face-to-face with someone, and they may make inappropriate comments that they would not make if they were in front of the person.
The harassment can take many forms, including:
- Inappropriate comments, jokes, pictures or videos sent in e-mails, message chats or text messages.
- Sexual or discriminatory innuendo or comments during video conferences.
- Colleagues displaying inappropriate pictures in the background that make others on the call feel uncomfortable.
- E-mails or texts asking for sexual favors.
- E-mail, text or chat messages with lewd photos or videos.
- Calling late at night for something that can be handled during work hours.
- Talking down to in a demeaning, intimidating or disrespectful fashion; or bullying behavior.
What employers can do
Employers should reiterate that any sexual harassment, even if not perpetrated in person, is unacceptable and that there will consequences, including losing one’s job if caught.
Anti-sexual harassment policies may not spell out that they apply while working at home, as much harassment is done in person. Employees may think that online harassment is not covered, and they may be reluctant to report the behavior. They may also be afraid to report harassment out of fear of losing their jobs.
One first step you as an employer can make is to extend anti-sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying policies to online platforms and text messaging.
It may be a good idea to hold anti-sexual harassment training online to drive home the seriousness of the problem. During these meetings you should:
- Use real-world examples with interactive discussions on what constitutes online harassment.
- Tell people who feel they are being sexually harassed to document the events. The best tool at their disposal is taking screenshots on their phones or laptops. They should learn how to do that quickly as images can be fleeting, particularly on video.
- Explain how employees can report inappropriate conduct as a victim or witness.
- Explain how employees can file complaints if they feel they’ve been the target of sexual harassment. Provide different safe channels of reporting and guarantee anonymity.
- Explain how complaints are handled and resolved.
- Spell out the ramifications for sexual harassment, including potential termination.
- Monitor employee communications and video-conferencing regularly to check for inappropriate conduct
- Hold supervisors accountable for inappropriate conduct among their ranks.
Remember: Even though online sexual harassment manifests itself differently than in-person harassment, it is just as serious and damaging. You should take it just as seriously when an employee reports it, and it should be dealt with using the same consequences spelled out in your current anti-sexual harassment policies.