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Sexual Harassment in The New Normal

The remote working genie is out of the bottle. Something that employers were reluctant to contemplate a year ago is now the norm and will form a significant part of the world of work long beyond 2020/21. The tech-enabled future seems bright and inviting but just like anything else, it has a darker side, and that includes the subject of sexual harassment.

A major topic in news stories in 2019, this has been eclipsed to a certain degree in 2020 for obvious reasons but it doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. If anything, it has mutated to take account of the new work landscape and is now appearing in unexpected places and in unexpected forms. Offices stand virtually empty, but work must go on. The video platforms facilitate face-to-face gatherings and although this can replicate the feeling of being together with teams and colleagues, there can be a negative side as well and employers need to be aware of these things in order to take action against them.

The negatives

A recent survey of over 2,000 staff who worked from home during the pandemic revealed that over a third of women were asked by managers to wear more make-up or dress more provocatively on video calls. Although meetings with external clients may well involve a dress code, it needs to apply equally to male and female workers. Any contraventions should be dealt with by HR rather than in a direct approach between a manager and an employee, which could take on disturbing overtones if the participants are of the opposite sex.

For some participants in video calls, the prospect of strangers being able to see the background behind them and draw conclusions from it about the person’s private life may be unsettling and could lead to unpleasant consequences, which would not be possible if the meeting was conducted face to face in a regular work environment. Many, if not all the video conferencing platforms offer the opportunity for artificial backgrounds which can mask the environment behind the speaker, and this can overcome the problem in many cases.

Another aspect of remote working is an increase in informal or unmonitored messaging, either via screen or by the chat facilities that many video conferencing platforms provide; this makes it harder for managers to monitor issues that might arise within their teams and it can be exploited by those seeking opportunities for harassment. However, there are options for recording videocalls or taking screencaps of chat messages which could be used to retain evidence of harassment if it occurs.

The implications

In a normal year, staff members experiencing harassment would likely immediately report it through the channels which many companies will have set up in the wake of the #MeToo movement and expect it to be dealt with in a robust manner. However, with many companies struggling, staff are facing extended calls on their time, often bleeding into their home time, feeling that they have to be contactable at all hours in order to prove their worth to managers who are desperate to grab every chance to ensure the company survives. When coupled with the uncertainty regarding job security, employees may feel that it is not worth their while rocking the boat if they experience questionable behaviour from managers or colleagues, particularly if those managers will be the ones making decisions on who is retained and who is made redundant.

The half-empty office

While remote working will be a feature of the workplace for the foreseeable future, it may not suit all employees, and some may prefer to move back to office-based working sooner rather than later. When they do, they will be working in an environment that is significantly less populated and this can raise problems with a lack of supervision and support, meaning that any harassment or questionable behaviour may be less likely to be spotted – fewer witnesses and colleagues to support or intervene could leave vulnerable employees in difficult situations with little or no visible means of escape.

Challenges in reporting

During remote working, victims of harassment incidents can feel isolated and unsupported and may find, depending on their home environment that it is difficult or even impossible to discuss incidents with any degree of privacy. It may also be harder to raise issues with their manager if there is no regular contact between the two. That’s why managers need to ensure that they have a policy of always being available if staff need to discuss something of this importance. A regular 1-to-1 meeting may suffice, or more might be needed – a flexibility and willingness on the part of the manager to make themselves available at a time that is suitable for the employee so that issues can be handled appropriately. This will ensure that staff have the confidence to approach management and can trust their concerns will be taken seriously.

What can employers do?

  • For many employees, this will be the first time they have encountered remote working on such a significant scale, and they may not be familiar with the expectations on how to behave. Employers can take the opportunity to issue guidance to all staff on what will be expected of them.

  • Some managers may only be used to the working relationship and be ill-prepared for the more personal aspects of managing staff and their needs during remote working. More open communication is vital if, as mentioned above, employees are to feel confident approaching their managers. A programme of training may be necessary to ensure all managers have the necessary skills to see them through challenging situations.

  • If an employee has not encountered a situation involving harassment or objectionable behaviour before, they may be unaware of the channels to be used for reporting it. All employees should be familiarised with the procedures for raising incidents of this nature; this can be done via the intranet or some other source that can be accessed discreetly without alerting anyone to the matter.

  • Although it may be tempting for managers to try and smooth over the matter and make it go away for the sake of the company’s image or the reputation of the accused, this could end up being a disastrous course of action. The truth will out, and in these days of social media, with #MeToo still prominent on many agendas, being seen to be complicit in a culture of deliberate secrecy or compromise, with the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or veiled threats, closing ranks or an “old boys’ network” can be far more damaging than admitting harassment has taken place and taking a robust attitude to its eradication. Organisations in sectors governed by regulatory bodies may even find their ability to continue operating may be curtailed or hampered.

  • A culture of responsiveness, openness, action and proactive addressing of these issues is paramount to either preventing them occurring or dealing with them in a way that guarantees a satisfactory outcome for all concerned. If employers, through design or inaction, send out a message that they are not taking their employees’ concerns seriously, those issues are less likely to be raised via official channels in the future; instead, this may well result in valuable staff seeking employment in other organisations which can demonstrate a more robust harassment policy, or – more worryingly, and less subject to control – airing their grievances on social media, which, as we have mentioned above, can result in significant damage to an organisation’s reputation.

  • One of the most valuable resources for an organisation seeking to address harassment issues is its own workforce. Monitoring the opinions and views of employees can give crucial insight into areas of concern. Comments made at exit interviews may highlight reasons why staff members feel they have to leave an organisation rather than direct their concerns to management. Staff surveys, provided they guarantee confidentiality, can also serve as indicators of problems that need to be addressed. Sometimes, harassment is highlighted not directly but by indirect data, such as sick days and absences, which could indicate someone is suffering from stress caused by harassment or perhaps reluctant to attend meetings or events with someone they are having problems with. While this could be circumstantial, it should form part of the evidence portfolio and, viewed as a whole, may well show what other indicators may have missed.

Updating policies

As with all changes to the business environment, it is important for companies/HR to review and update their policies and procedures with regard to codes of conduct, disciplinary policies, confidentiality clauses, training materials etc.

Further reading

For more information on sexual harassment and harassment at work, please follow this link:


Written by

Tina Fox, HR and Employment Law Advisor at rradar