Hybrid harassment: How to stamp out employee abuse in remote work

24% of people believe abuse has gotten worse in remote working models

Hybrid harassment: How to stamp out employee abuse in remote work

Thirty-eight percent of employees experience harassment in remote work, according to research from AllVoices. In fact, 24% of people believe abuse has only gotten worse in remote working models – with email abuse and video chats descending into quarrels and chaos.

So why do employees seem more inclined to abuse each other virtually? And, more importantly, what’s HR doing about it?

“The definition of workplace harassment hasn’t changed,” says Mike MacLellan, partner at Crawford, Chondon and Partners. “In general, workplace harassment is a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker that’s known, or ought reasonably to be known, to be unwelcome.”

That’s the statutory definition in Ontario under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. And this really doesn’t matter if it’s in-person or remotely – it’s unacceptable. In hybrid and remote set ups, harassment can be harder to spot. However, there’s some obvious examples that HR should be on the lookout for.

“Refusing to use someone’s pronouns, for example,” says MacLellan. “That’s a prime example of a microaggression in remote work. Things like interrupting a qualified employee on a video call, or refusing to accept the advice of a colleague because of their gender - over time these microaggressions could constitute that vexatious course of conduct.”

Microaggressions are on the rise, with 26% of employees having been on the receiving end of one at work – and 36% of workers having witnessed one in their workplace. Despite the sharp incline, in remote work they can be incredibly difficult to catch.

“Take for instance, video meetings,” says MacLellan. “Say you have a team leader who’s routinely discounting the same individual, interrupting them or just refusing to respect their competence. In the past, this may not have been seen as harassment, but nowadays we know them to be microaggressions, and they should be considered serious workplace harassment.”

Duty to investigate

If you believe that one of your employees is being harassed, and you do nothing about it, you could leave yourself open to lawsuits. The duty to investigate means that looking into cases of abuse isn’t just the ethical thing to do, it’s a legal requirement.

“It’s important for both employers and employees to understand the ‘duty to investigate,’” says Stuart Rudner, founder or Rudner Law. “In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act has been amended to include a positive duty to investigate where there’s an allegation, or even a suspicion, of harassment or sexual harassment. Similar acts exist in other provinces. So, if there’s a complaint, employers can’t decide against looking into it just because they think it doesn’t sound credible. That would be a breach of legislation.”

The message for employers is a clear one. It doesn’t matter if your teams are in-person, working in hybrid or located on the other side of the world – harassment is harassment. HR leaders have a tough job on their hands of sniffing out potential abuse and squashing it before it becomes a health and safety issue. And, even if you’re not intentionally ignoring cases, if you’re not proactively investigating then you could leave yourself open to compliance chaos. 

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