How can businesses protect remote staff from harassment?

Workplace bullying can occur even when employees are at home, but there are steps firms can take, say Gillian Maclellan and Molly Grace 

Sexual harassment is continuing to occur in ‘the new normal’. So what should employers do to protect their staff and manage their legal risk? 

Remote harassment

To replicate in-person conversations and meetings, many companies have encouraged staff to use videoconferencing facilities. While this can be conducive to teamwork and relationship building, it can also have negative side effects. 

For example, evidence suggests that managers may feel entitled to comment on their employees’ appearance. For businesses where staff have regular virtual meetings with external clients, it may be important that a certain dress code is maintained, but this must apply equally to men and women.

There can be an increased sense of informality when colleagues are working from home. Video calls can be intrusive, as co-workers and clients can see into each other’s homes, which may provide information about individual’s living arrangements and personal relationships. 

There is likely to be an increased reliance on informal and unmonitored messaging in many organisations, where staff may have work-related or social conversations via instant messaging systems. This makes it difficult for managers to have oversight of issues arising within their teams, which in turn increases opportunities for harassment.

Staff have reported feeling more pressure to be contactable during evenings and weekends, as managers know they are at home. This may lead to employees feeling insecure about their jobs. Such circumstances leave people vulnerable to harassment.

The Rights of Women campaign suggests that people should avoid logging on or answering calls outside working hours. While employees should not be pressured to work excessive or anti-social hours, this approach may not always be practical for senior employees. 

Employees should respect their colleagues’ rest periods. The Mindful Business Charter recommends that, when communicating outside working hours, employees consider being clear in emails whether the message needs to be read or actioned promptly. 

Changing office dynamics

It is probable that remote working is here to stay. However, it is recognised that for some people there is likely to be a need or preference for office-based working, because of personal circumstances or mental health considerations.

For those who do decide to go back into the office, it may be some time until there is a return to the full and sociable workplaces of the pre-pandemic era. Employers need to be aware of the increased risk of harassment in circumstances where staff may be working at the office with a significantly reduced number of people present.

Businesses should consider how they can best protect junior staff members. Mentoring or buddy systems can help ensure that junior employees have a more senior colleague present. Where a senior employee is found to have harassed a more junior colleague, appropriate disciplinary action should be taken. 

Challenges in reporting

Reporting sexual harassment is often daunting, as victims can grapple with feelings of guilt and can fear recriminations. These difficulties can be increased in circumstances where employees are working remotely. They may feel isolated and unsupported and may face practical difficulties when discussing their harassment, such as a lack of privacy.

It is crucial for managers to have a virtual open door. This might mean ensuring employees feel safe raising issues without fear they may be criticised, or their concerns not taken seriously. 

Practical steps

To address the risks that can arise from new working arrangements, we suggest businesses consider:

  • Ensuring your workforce is aware of what amounts to harassment, and the expectations and etiquette surrounding work-related communications during periods of remote working. 
  • Open communication between employees and their managers is vital. 
  • Clear information should be provided to employees on how they can report any incidents of harassment. 
  • Once a member of staff raises a harassment complaint, it is important that this is acknowledged and investigated promptly. 
  • It is important that issues are monitored to identify any patterns of harassment. For example, any comments at employee exit interviews should be collated and assessed. Staff surveys are also a useful tool in understanding whether employees have been harassed. 

Gillian Maclellan is an employment partner and Molly Grace an associate at CMS