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Yes, Harassment Still Continues Remotely—Here’s Why And How To Stop It 

By Claire Schmidt

Workplace harassment is pervasive, and in recent years more people who have suffered or witnessed harassment and haven’t seen it being addressed have taken to public channels like social media and blogs to voice their concerns to get justice.

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But surely harassment, which seems so personal and face-to-face, would decrease if workplaces simply went remote, and people were no longer face-to-face, right?

According to our most recent report, “State of Workplace Harassment,” that’s not the case, and harassment has very much entered the realm of virtual.

What is remote workplace harassment?

Remote harassment happens on phone calls, through email, on video conferencing, through chat apps, or through other technology that has enabled remote work to be possible.

Our research found that 38 percent of employees experience harassment remotely through these channels. This is significant, considering the massive move to remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

AllVoices CEO and founder Claire Schmidt
AllVoices CEO and founder Claire Schmidt

It’s likely that many employees who were experiencing harassment and unfair treatment in the workplace may have thought they’d have a reprieve from it with the shift to virtual work. But it seems that wasn’t the case.

Not only did harassment continue, it was now occurring in people’s homes—safe spaces now compromised by continued harassment.

Why does it continue?

From our survey we found that 24 percent believe that harassment and bullying gets worse online. Being behind an avatar or a screen name allows for a lack of decorum and censorship that might otherwise occur face-to-face in a professional setting.

Called “the online disinhibition effect,” it’s the understanding that “while online, some people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person,” and contributing factors include a sense of invisibility, the asynchronicity of email or chat app exchanges, and lack of the presence of authority.

Impacts of remote harassment

With the wide-scale move to remote, we’ve seen the two issues marry: Cyberbullying at work. And the pandemic created a very precarious position: Those who may have been hesitant to report due to fear of losing their jobs were, during the pandemic, uncertain if they would be laid off, or if there was other work to find.

So the necessity of keeping the job they had most likely kept them quiet.

Steps to address remote workplace harassment

There are a few steps you can take to address remote workplace harassment, which include:

  • Understand the current environment: Start by understanding the current environment around harassment. Organizations may think it’s not happening amongst their workforce, but research says otherwise.
  • Commit to listening: Chances are many of your employees aren’t speaking up and telling you what you need to hear for fear of retaliation, or that they won’t be believed. Commit to listening, and put steps in place to listen, especially when it comes to remote workers who you don’t actively see in a workplace each day.
  • Reevaluate your feedback tools: You may already have tools in place to gather feedback from employees, but are they the right tools for a remote workforce? If your approach to feedback is having an open-door policy, how does that translate to remote? Consider not just what tools you should be offering, but what tools are actually soliciting honest feedback.
  • Offer anonymous channels: We’ve discovered in our research that employees are more likely to report issues in the workplace if they’re offered truly anonymous ways to do so. This allows employees who feel like they can’t take the risk of being “found out” to have a true way to contribute their voice without fear.
  • Taking action on reports: Finally, any steps taken to increase feedback are meaningless if action isn’t taken to resolve the reports when they arise. Put tools in place that allow you to easily track reports and see them through to completion. Seeing that action is being taken on reports will also encourage more employees to raise their feedback, too.

Pull the plug on harassment

Organizations need to be aware that harassment does still continue through remote means. But there are ways to surface those issues and stop them, so that all workers—in-person and remote—feel safe at and engaged with their workplace.

Claire Schmidt is founder and CEO of AllVoices,  an employee feedback management platform that enables anyone to anonymously report sexual harassment and workplace issues directly to company leadership. Before founding AllVoices, Schmidt served as vice president of technology and innovation at 20th Century Fox. In 2010 she helped found and lead Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, a nonprofit organization which deploys technology in innovative ways to fight child sex trafficking.

Illustration: iStock

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