Dealing with Digital Harassment in a Remote Work Environment

There are over 4.3 million remote workers in the USA, accounting for 3.2 percent of its workforce. And this figure is even much higher now, given the extended lockdowns throughout the country.

The office-to-home shift brought on by the pandemic is nothing but temporary. In the coming years, many companies will eventually integrate partial or full remote work into their business model to reduce overhead expenses and become more sustainable.

This begs the question, are we ready for it? Are there enough laws and regulations that protect telecommuters from office dangers such as sexual harassment, bullying, racism, and unfair employer practices? Are there avenues for people to complain about hostile remote work environments?

No Room for Complacency

The #metoo movement has empowered victims of harassment to come forward and make their abusers accountable for their actions. The movement has shown that collective outcry can send even the most powerful men to their fall from grace. And with many people now working from the comfort of their homes, one would assume that forms of harassment and bullying have decreased. But a survey done for The European Parliament’s campaign MeTooEP reveals that 16 percent of respondents believe they had experienced harassment via video call, a form of harassment now called Zoombombing.

But in reality, remote work could pose bigger risks as workplaces become decentralized and workers become isolated. In an office environment where gossip spread fast and collective effort can put enough pressure on employers to deal with an incident, harassment cases are likely to get resolved. This is especially true for companies where a culture of transparency, fairness, and tolerance has been established. However, remote work can open new ways and forms of harassment that employees and HR personnel may not be prepared to deal with.

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Increased Risks and New Forms of Harassment

Communication is the biggest challenge with telecommuting. A neutral message containing objective information could easily translate into rudeness or aggression. Likewise, a workmate could be sending you “too comfortable bordering on harassment” messages via Slack without you noticing it.

Here are some factors of remote work that could increase the risks of harassment:

  • Sexist demands, mainly targeted at women, such as being asked to wear makeup and abide by a certain dress code during Zoom meetings. This should be fine if male colleagues are being asked the same demands. If an employer asks you to dress more provocatively, report it immediately to HR.
  • Extension of working hours due to the blurring of the boundary between work and home could make employees more vulnerable to abuse. Work-related social messaging can also add to employees’ stress and burnout. Add to that the uncertainties and anxieties caused by the pandemic.
  • With video conferencing being the norm, clients and coworkers can now see into each other’s homes, creating an increased sense of informality. This can get intrusive, and some people may feel uncomfortable.
  • New remote work dynamics, such as communicating beyond work hours and unmonitored messaging, can leave people vulnerable to verbally abusive comments, racist or sexist comments, gaslighting, and so on. Third-party private messaging channels could make it difficult for HR and management to oversee issues in their departments.
  • Many people feel insecure about their jobs, fearing that the oncoming recession will lead to them being laid off. Abusive employers would see this as an opportunity to make unfair demands and untoward actions to benefit their interests. They would use your job security as a threat should you file a complaint. Such incidents warrant a consultation with a personal injury lawyer to make sure you can protect your rights and build a strong case against your employer.
  • Remote work also makes reporting a challenge. For one, employees may hold back bringing a case forward in fear of losing their job or not providing sufficient evidence. To remedy this, HR personnel should create avenues and safe spaces for employees to report incidents and perform routine talks and training addressing workplace harassment.

The practical but unfortunate benefit of being in a remote workplace is that it’s easy to document and keep track of harassment incidents. You can make your case stronger by collecting emails, private messages, and other forms of digital evidence against the harasser. If the abusive act was made during a Zoom call and you weren’t able to record the interaction, it would be harder to prove your case unless other witnesses were willing to testify. In this case, you can rely on other people who have had a similar experience. Either way, it’s still best to report the incident to HR right away so they can assist with gathering evidence.

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