HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Remote Sexual Harassment: It’s Happening. Are You Ready?

Touches on the shoulder, staring, offensive remarks, and overly personal questions in the break room. Yes, those in-person situations are not with us when we work remotely, but watch out. An evolving workplace environment presents a heightened set of issues. And every company needs to be prepared.

A New Workplace Dynamic

As post-pandemic work shifts to hybrid or fully remote, companies are seeing the upside of having remote employees, such as an expanded talent pool from which to choose and increased retention of satisfied employees who appreciate the flexibility of working from home. There are other pluses as well. An Owl Labs State of Remote Work survey found that remote employees have 79% increased productivity and better focus. And according to CoSo research, 52% are less likely to take time off.

But remote work is not just for the present; it’s central to our future. As reported by CNBC, research by freelance platform Upwork indicates that “by 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels,” and that “as businesses adapt and learn from this remote work experiment, many are altering their long-term plans to accommodate this way of working.”

But as remote work becomes a staple, we are opening our lives to our colleagues as never before. In some ways, it’s refreshingly real and casual. There may be barking dogs, crying babies, interruptions from spouses, and the like. It’s an intimate glimpse into our personal lives—and it sets the stage for interactions to take on a new light. Even something that might start innocently, like a casual comment about clothing, can become a lewd joke about what someone is wearing (or not wearing) on the lower half of their body, out of the camera’s view. Or perhaps offensive or suggestive comments—or emojis, GIFs, and images—come through an online chat, where a perceived anonymity breaks a barrier of a different kind.

Suddenly the boundaries in this remote work environment don’t exist in the same way, but the damage caused by sexual harassment is still just as real.

Emerging Research and Legal Decisions

To help navigate this tricky new environment, let’s look at emerging research and legal decisions related to remote sexual harassment. A 2021 Pew report on The State of Online Harassment showed that roughly four in 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, including sexual harassment or stalking. A recent study from Rights of Women, a UK-based charity, found that sexual harassment of women worsened during the pandemic, with nearly half of it occurring remotely. And in the U.S., legal scholars and court decisions are weighing in, confirming the need to address remote sexual harassment and serving as a marker for the challenges ahead.

Who Is Being Harassed?

On the question of who is being harassed, both in person and remotely, data in the report Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem, by the research think tank New America, shows that across all sectors, women of lower status are the most common targets of harassment by perpetrators, who are typically men of higher status. But men, particularly those who don’t conform to traditional masculine norms, such as LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people, can be targets as well. Women can be harassers. People of color, especially women, are more likely to be the subject of harassment than their white counterparts. The report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, by Rose L. Siuta and Mindy E. Bergman of Texas A&M University, offers similar data.

Remote Harassment and Reporting

In an article in Raconteur, HR consultant Karen Beardsell emphasizes that the isolated nature of working from home can make reporting complex. “Most people who experience harassment might sense-check with a colleague or speak to a member of the HR team before raising an issue more formally,” she says. “These informal chance conversations are not available anymore.” It’s also harder to witness harassment. While it’s easier to spot someone lingering at another person’s desk, making them obviously uncomfortable, remote harassment is more likely to go unseen. And unfortunately, non-reporting can embolden harassers, which may worsen an existing problem.

What You Can Do

There are concrete steps companies can take to tackle sexual harassment in hybrid and fully remote settings. If you’ve not yet addressed the issues of remote sexual harassment at your company, a canvas of views from the experts offers a few basic steps that can get you started.

  1. Remind employees about sexual harassment laws and company policies. Because the law does not make exceptions for remote versus in-person sexual harassment, the same rules apply. A reminder to leaders, managers, and employees can deter inappropriate behavior, as can updates to the policy, if needed.
  2. Track and address remote sexual harassment. Your ability to monitor and address remote situations is just as important as it was in a typical in-person setting, requiring the same sensitivity and prompt action.
  3. Let your brand values and culture be the guide. If your company brand values are well articulated and address appropriate tone and approach for personal interactions, this can be one of your most valuable tools—provided they are shared and explained to all.
  4. Launch or relaunch your sexual harassment training program. As the work environment changes, so do your employees’ training needs. A comprehensive training program delivered virtually that features both remote and hybrid scenarios will be your best defense.

If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that the workplace will continue to evolve as we move forward with the pandemic in our rear view. With these steps, you’ll be embarking on the initial work you’ll need to protect your organization and your employees in this changing world.

Natasha Nicholson is senior content manager at Kantola. Natasha has more than 20 years of experience as a content leader, communication strategist, and editor. At the International Association of Business Communicators, she was the executive editor for Communication World and Catalyst magazines. Natasha is currently responsible for content strategy and production at Kantola Training Solutions, a high-growth eLearning company working to help end harassment, bullying, and discrimination in organizations through high-quality interactive online training.