Business/Economy

Employers’ harassment policies may be out of date for remote workers

If you supervise employees working remotely and haven’t yet updated your harassment policy, it’s time, given the resurgence of political, racial and vaccine-related hate speech.

Multiple federal and state laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Alaska Human Rights Law, require employers to protect employees from workplace harassment regardless of where they work. Out-of-date harassment policies may inadequately protect employees or employers whose employees launch attacks against others using employer-owned equipment.

Here’s the reality. Rumors, threats, insults, cyberbullying, hate speech and other forms of harassment have thrived during the pandemic. According to Pew research, 41 percent of U.S. adults have experienced online harassment, with 20% harassed online for their political views and 25% experiencing more severe harassment including physical threats and stalking.

The pandemic and increased use of videoconferencing and social media platforms have created new harassment forms, including Zoom bombing, dogpiling and doxing. In what many call the “coming out party” of digital harassment, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin exposed his genitals to coworkers on Zoom. He weakly apologized, saying he hadn’t realized he’d not shut off his video feed. He didn’t apologize for masturbating during a work call with female colleagues.

An isolated problem? Hardly. According to surveys, nearly 40 percent of employees report masturbating in the workplace and #MeToobin began trending on Twitter with women speaking out about similar experiences. Further, many employees believe different, more casual rules apply to their conduct during virtual meetings when working from home. Add to this the fact that 83% of employees drink a glass or two or a daily bottle of wine at least twice weekly while working at home, and harassment incidents can easily occur.

Here’s what employers need to do.

Establish policies protecting your employees from harassment and prohibiting your employees from harassing others using employer provided equipment. While you may already have a basic policy, most current harassment policies list forms and examples of prohibited conduct with a focus on in-person behavior. Add online harassment to your policy and include hate speech; cyberbullying; hacking; impersonation (posting photos and materials in another’s name); dogpiling; doxing; and trolling as prohibited actions.

If you haven’t yet heard of several of these terms, other Alaska employers have experienced them. Dogpiling occurs when employees don’t like their colleague’s or manager’s political or vaccination views and incite fellow believers to send their targets multiple insulting, threatening messages. In recent months, several Alaska employers called me when anti-vax employees targeted the senior managers and members of boards of directors of employers that instituted vaccine mandates.

Doxing happens when employees hack into their coworker’s mobile devices or Facebook accounts or stalk their online directories and then reveal the coworker’s private personal information to others. Several of my friends abandoned Facebook when this happened to them.

Trolling occurs when employees hop onto nonprotected videoconferencing calls and use screensharing to project graphic content to others. One Alaska employer shut down multiple Zoom events after an employee figured out how to create different user accounts and considered it fun to mess with his company’s intended rollout of new policies via Zoom.

Next, you may need to update your policy by broadening your definition of what “workplace” means. OSHA requires employers to prevent harassment against their employees wherever those employees handle employment duties on their employer’s behalf.

Additionally, you need to implement a code of conduct for virtual meetings, given that many employees don’t realize the normal rules for appropriate behavior apply when they’re working from home.

Finally, let your remote employees know they can report harassment to HR. Emphasize that you’ll take all harassment complaints seriously and investigate them promptly. If there’s a problem, you want to catch it early.

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is president of Communication Works Inc. Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Managing for Accountability”; “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is President of Communication Works Inc. Send your questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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