Protecting remote workers from harassment: Five key steps

Article by Andy Nickolls, Director of Compliance Solutions EMEA at Skillsoft

Bullying and sexual harassment are growing areas of concern for all organisations.

Indeed, a 2019 survey revealed that 90% of respondents had been bullied in the workplace— with 51% of those by a boss or manager. Despite the clear and ongoing challenges, employers everywhere are committed to the prevention of mistreatment in the workplace.

However, while most corporations have a structured program to address harassment, unfortunately many still don’t fully reflect the challenges of addressing the core issues with a remote workforce. Part of the problem is that existing approaches were never designed with the circumstances of the last 12 months in mind. While some organisations had remote working policies pre-pandemic, most office-based workers would travel to a shared location where processes were designed to support people in that particular environment.

As millions of people now know, when entire organisations pivot to remote working virtually overnight, there is significant scope for tried and tested ways of working to suddenly become unfit for purpose when people aren’t in the same building. What’s more, the nature of workplace harassment has changed, with more one-to-one online communication increasing the risk that inappropriate behaviour goes unnoticed.

Despite the change in environment, the experiences of victims range from obvious to extremely subtle. For instance, communication carried out via email or instant messaging or digital channels that feature threatening or inappropriate comments, racist, gender-biased, or other offensive language are among the various ways for one employee to try and influence, offend or inflict distress on another.

As a result, the challenges of addressing remote workplace harassment are significant. For instance, employees who would normally have the option of talking directly to a manager or HR professional in a shared office environment to discuss any harassment concerns or to report an incident, may currently find the process harder. Part of the problem is that remote working requires additional steps to initiate a conversation or submit a complaint, particularly when it involves people who aren’t a daily point of contact.

Even though some organisations are reopening their office spaces, many others are retaining the remote working model for the long term, or opting for a hybrid approach where working together in the office is required for only a few days at a time. This means that many organisations need to adapt their approach to preventing and addressing harassment, and there are a number of key areas that will determine whether their processes can deliver the support remote employees need:

  1. Ensure processes and policies are fit for purpose. HR teams may need to update policies and internal communications to both help remote employees and fulfil their obligations set out by employment law and company policy. These should make it clear that harassment and mistreatment is illegal even when working remotely, and that the context and location of the work does not equal any relaxation in how people should treat each other. Policies should also draw on language that is relevant to remote work to ensure expectations are clear and not open to interpretation.
  2. Limit the use of unsecured communication channels. This helps increase security and prevent situations such as “Zoom bombing”, when uninvited people are able to join online meetings, engaging in behaviour that can be extremely distressing.
  3. Provide ways for employees to report harassment. Employees should be completely clear on the methods their employer provides so they can anonymously report incidents of harassment, bullying or mistreatment. In short, everyone should have access to a safe and reliable process that enables them to confidentially share their concerns and experiences that also gives them confidence that they will be taken seriously.
  4. Ensure training is up to date and relevant. As a key area of compliance, training  programmes should be updated to focus on remote working environments if employers are to remain in step with workplace laws and regulations. In doing so, employees can be reminded about the approach their organisation takes to harassment and offer tangible support for anyone who believes they are being mistreated.
  5. Focus on employee wellbeing. This should be a given, but recent shared experiences means the health and happiness of employees must remain a top priority across organisations everywhere. By renewing their stance on defeating harassment and mistreatment, HR teams can ensure they offer the maximum level of protection to their colleagues working in the office and at home, while maintaining a strong focus on compliance. Similarly, people who witness the commitment of their employer to wellbeing may feel more confidence in reporting incidents to HR colleagues.

With remote working set to remain a significant and permanent part of the national working culture, it’s essential that employers update their approach to reflect the changes in environment, communication and contact. Those who put appropriate processes and channels in place will reinforce the message that workplace harassment will not be tolerated, while also giving colleagues who are distressed by the behaviour of others a way to find strong, consistent support.

About the author

Andy is responsible for leading Skillsoft’s Compliance business in the EMEA region.  He has more than 30 years’ experience in the technology industry and a broad range of expertise in Learning and Performance support within global organisations. Andy is passionate about helping organisations achieve competitive advantage through superior enterprise-wide knowledge and skills. He has held various senior roles at Skillsoft since joining the company in 1998, including Regional Vice President EMEA.

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