Suzanne McKie, a London-based employment lawyer, expressed to Bloomberg that she hears of greater occurrences of harassment now compared to pre-lockdown times. The intimidation is not physical; rather it has moved to WhatsApp and text messages on personal phones, which are just as, if not more, difficult for employers to monitor. She is also seeing a distinct uptick in complaints of gender and racial harassment.

COVID-19 is forcing everyone to find new ways of maintaining lifestyle, health, and even work practices. As work-from-home (WFH) mandates persist across the globe, companies are witnessing new shifts in employee behavior. Many managers are realizing that, contrary to popular assumptions, work-from-home models are not liberating employees from workplace bullying and harassment as these malpractices now shift to digital and mobile channels and are, thus, harder to track.

Without clear knowledge of how workplace culture and employee policies apply to us in the walls of our homes, there exists a giant loophole that many take advantage of, to bully/ harass their colleagues. Therefore, the first step is to understand the nature of harassment while working from home.

Why is work-from-home harassment different?

  1. Virtual communication like WhatsApp and Facebook provide anonymity to bullies. It also gives them prime advantage to prey on the isolation of victims who work from home.
  2. Working conditions have become more stressful due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This can strain working relationships, leading to insensitive and degenerate comments by phone, text or email.
  3. Aggressive workers/ colleagues who were usually restrained by office policy are less constrained online where behavioral peer pressure is less obvious.

The failure to combat workplace bullying during remote working can lead to adverse physical and psychological effects on employees. When employees do not feel safe in their offices, their productivity, creativity, and dedication to their work decline drastically. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes this effect in detail. But, if the harassment takes place while in the safety of their own homes, these psychological effects are compounded, amounting to torment.

So, what can managers do to combat harassment during work-from-home?

Establish and strengthen online Bystander Intervention Training modules. When organizations use online group communication tools like Zoom, managers may remind their employees that their responsibility to report injustice does not change, whether at the company office or during WFH.

Remind all employees that strict action will be taken against bullies. Even if it happens outside the office and in homes, harassment cannot be tolerated as per the company policies.

Communicate one-on-one with employees regularly to help them open up and report any injustice or harassment observed during their work meetings. This can soothe employee fear of negative attention from their peers/ colleagues when reporting injustices.

Educate employees about their legal rights and emphasize that the same rights apply even when working from home. This can make a world of difference in empowering harassed employees to speak up. This is becoming even more significant considering the increase in workplace harassment as addressed by Suzanne McKie.

Create a team of upstanders who act as intermediaries. In cases where employees hesitate to report harassment to higher-ups due to lack of relatability, this works as a useful go-between.

Are there other steps you’ve used to weed out cyber harassment during WFH? Let us know in the comments.

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