Harassment in the Remote Workplace


“Well, I guess one thing that we have gained from the decentralized workplace was the removal of possible harassment, right?”

Well, unfortunately, that may not be the case.

Working from home should have liberated employees from toxic workplace behavior such as bullying and harassment. Yet, far from ending misconduct, the pandemic lockdowns have displaced it at best and fueled it at worst, according to a recent Bloomberg article.

Harassment can be defined as any unwelcome/offensive conduct towards a person because of their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. ​ Sexual harassment can be defined as any form of unwelcomed and inappropriate sexual remarks, physical advances, any lewd non-verbal behaviors in a workplace or other professional or social situation.

All types of harassment can occur whenever and wherever an employee is fulfilling their work responsibilities, even remotely. The Covid-19 crisis did change the way in which our work environments are structured, but it has also changed the way in which we interact. These novel interaction mechanisms and adaptations have also led to a transformation in the way negative interactions-and potential harassment- may arise in the workplace.

Priorities for managers to maintain and promote positive interactions are still of paramount importance. Yet, with a lack of physical oversight and an inability to control the makeshift workplaces of their colleagues- characterized by causal dress, random interruptions, and adaptive work- the enforcement of previous professionalism seems to be diminishing. With many substituting their collared shirts and power suits for leisurewear to the infamous pajama wearers, the increased casualism within the workplace has been accepted now as commonplace.

Casualism has not only permeated into the dress and attitudes of employees, but how the actual interpersonal dynamics between those employees unfold. With broken barriers of professionalism, new problems and seemingly innocuous remarks begin to slowly make their ways through the cracks.

“I’m actually not wearing any pants!” exclaims your colleague, after reading a recent Wall Street Journal article on appearing professional from the waist up.

“Wow, your place looks really nice, I would love to come check it out one day,” remarks your manager on a private Zoom call, leading to feelings of discomfort from a higher-ranking executive of the firm.

Digital harassment has been a main focal point during these unnatural times. What separates digital harassment from other forms of harassment is that there is a medium that the harasser may use to hide behind. Digital harassment can span from, “Some of the most common displays are inappropriate jokes or comments in employee emails or chat messages, sexual or racial innuendo in online employee forums, and the distribution of offensive photos, gifs, or memes based on protected characteristics. Digital harassment also can take the form of exclusion or ridicule, such as intentionally muting individuals during web conferences or defacing profile pictures.”

Although the intent may be to keep things lighthearted during a time of disconnect, which is something that has been seen to boost productivity among divided teams, the intent is irrelevant. These types of aggressions and conversations, especially those arising during unsupervised times- private Zoom calls, messengers, Slack, etc.- should not go unreported or unnoticed. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to lighten the mood, or you were just having fun. You may have truly meant no harm – but if you caused harm, then it doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to. Think of running a red light: just because you didn’t mean to does not excuse the violation.

Virtual communication provides a separation from reality that can lead people to act in ways they know would be inappropriate in an office setting— similar to how social media and the internet gave rise to cyberbullying in schools. In the same way that the government billed Cyberbullying laws to encompass bullying in new forms, so too have employers formalized digital harassment under the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Social media and work place digital interactions can, according to the EEOC, “foster toxic interactions…and be a possible means for workplace harassment.”

Beyond that, as we trek through another uncertain and vaccine-less month, with mixed restrictions allowing some employees to go into the office on certain days, with fewer individuals there create more unforeseen problems. These Hybrid Office situations, where some remain on-line while others trickle into the office, could be a new point of concern. Previously, convening one-on-one in a glass conference room would keep all parties accountable as people would be able to see through to any interactions going on. Now, if two employees are in the office alone, possibly without any managerial oversight, gray areas can emerge if any negative interactions occur.

So, what can managers do to protect the integrity of their harassment policies? And most importantly: how can they protect their people against new harassment mediums?

  • Reemphasize professionalism: no need to be in full suit, but still appropriate attire is non-negotiable
  • Make sure your remote workstation is in line with what you feel comfortable sharing with your colleagues
  • Think about who you are interacting with, not your current situation: Is this a colleague on an important project? Is this a client e-mail that should be checked for grammar? Is this my buddy from college?
  • Just because you’re relaxed, doesn’t mean your work is too.
  • Understand that you may not be familiar with the home lives of your colleagues
  • Address issues that you see recurring, in order to avoid ambiguity
  • Establish simple safeguards: pants are mandatory, no televisions on in background, no working in bed, only communicate over company approved systems
  • In terms of Hybrid Office space, if you are comfortable and feel safe to go to the office, make sure that it is disclosed to a manager/executive in order to maintain safety
  • Understand that the company is the same (rules, work expectations, hierarchy, etc.) regardless of how the workplace is currently constructed

So, for all working through these times, the rules and work are unchanged. Right now, things may be done different ways – both bad things and good things- but being aware and educating oneself on the importance of what these items look like, sound like, and feel like is how we can maintain the integrity of the workplace through times of uncertainty.