Veteran (and now former) New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin made headlines last fall after he exposed himself on a work-related Zoom call.
The best-selling author and cable-news analyst said it wasn’t intentional — he thought his camera was off. The tabloids had a field day with the story, as did late-night comics.
But the takeaway for business leaders is that sexual misconduct — whether in the office break room or a video-conference breakout session — is no laughing matter.
The tools enabling remote work can — and do — enable sexual harassment as well, and organizations need to understand what harassment looks like in a remote-work setting and make sure their sexual-harassment policies, training and reporting procedures reflect their work environment, experts on the issue say.
“Sexual harassment is definitely still an issue in remote work,” says Robyn Swirling, founder of Works in Progress, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that addresses sexual and gender-based harassment. “People were being harassed over email and chat and things like Slack and Microsoft Teams while in the office. Just separating people from being in the same physical space does not solve the problem of harassment.”
Indeed, almost four in 10 California women have experienced online harassment, according to a 2019 survey by the Center on Gender Equity and other groups. That was before the pandemic spurred a surge in remote work.
In Britain, a survey conducted last year by the Rights of Women charity found that of the 42 percent of women experiencing workplace sexual harassment, some to all of it was online. In addition, almost a quarter of those reporting such harassment said it had escalated since they started working remotely.
In another recent British survey, a third of women respondents said they were subject to at least one sexist demand while working remotely last year — such as being told to dress sexier or more provocatively for video meetings. In India, an organization focused on workplace law reported a 20 percent increase in harassment cases last year after lockdowns boosted remote work.
A 2016 study on workplace harassment by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) listed “isolated” and “decentralized” workspaces as risk factors for sexual harassment. While the study was referring mainly to occupations such as nightshift workers and housekeepers, “isolated and decentralized” also describes today’s remote workers.
Another risk factor, according to the EEOC: alcohol consumption. The boozy office party is known to be problematic, but remote work may present the same risks: A third of the 2,000 remote workers American Addiction Centers surveyed last year said they were more likely to drink during business hours while working from home instead of the office.
A blurring of work and personal space is an additional area of concern, when “being on the job” can mean sitting before a bedroom computer in a T-shirt.
“This relaxed formality can lead to a decreased level of civility, professionalism and sense of accountability on the part of the harasser,” said Brigitte Gawenda Kimichik, co-author of “Play Nice: Playground Rules for Respect in the Workplace.” “For video conference calls, the harasser may feel more comfortable speaking freely and make inappropriate comments about what women are wearing, tell inappropriate jokes or share experiences that might be sexually charged or discriminatory.”
Kimichik says companies with the means and personnel should have someone monitor every video conference for inappropriate behavior. At the very least, employee harassment training should be updated to include examples of inappropriate behavior on remote-work tools.
One simpler approach is to re-evaluate the use of video calls to determine if some matters might be handled with phone calls or even just emails.
“There is sometimes an overemphasis on video,” said Swirling of Works in Progress. “What it does from a sexual and gender-based harassment standpoint is create more opportunity to see into people’s homes and to create judgments about them.” (Some video-conference systems provide virtual backgrounds, though this might require employees to have advanced equipment and software.)
When there is no longer a physical human-resources office to visit, employees need other channels for reporting harassment and they need to be made aware of them, Swirling added.
“The law tells us that no matter how somebody communicates information about harassment, management has to act,” she said. “Some places might still mandate employees fill out paper forms or have conversations with specific people, who might not regularly be available. Such policies need to be updated.”
What you see and don’t see
Swirling warns that remote harassment can be “insidious and a lot more invisible” than harassment that occurs in person.
Managers need to keep an eye out for both its overt and subtle forms. If using teamwork communication platforms such as Microsoft Slack, they should take note if certain employees or categories of employees, such as those who are openly LGBTQ, stop participating, she says.
“They should wonder if the space is still safe and welcoming for everybody, and check in with those who have withdrawn,” Swirling said.
As the work/home lines blur, so too does the demarcation between private and company communications.
In general, employees should not have any expectations of privacy when communicating via company equipment, email addresses or networks, says Broderick Dunn a partner and employment-law specialist with the Virginia law firm Cook, Craig and Francuzenko.
“I know many companies do record their Zoom calls, especially when you have more than a few employees,” Dunn said. “And the administrator who organizes the Zoom can access its chat feature too, so they can see the smaller conversations that are happening within the Zoom.”
While in-person harassment claims often dissolve into he-said, she-said disputes, remote harassment can leave behind digital evidence. Those claiming harassment should save improper communications and/or take screenshots to document the abuse, says author Kimichik.
She also offers some basic advice for companies looking to prevent remote-work sexual harassment.
“Hold supervisors, group leaders and senior executives accountable for inappropriate behavior within their teams,” Kimichik said. “This will encourage hands-on supervision and regular check-ins with employees and prompt attention to any violative behavior.”