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Telecommuting puts anti-harassment measures in focus

Posted On: Mar. 27, 2020 1:36 PM CST


With the coronavirus pandemic and massive quarantines producing a spike in telecommuting, employment experts say employers should reintroduce anti-harassment training and protocols because those unused to communicating solely online may cross a line.

“A best practice right now for employers is for them to at least review their policies and ensure that they do have something that provides for harassment in remote situations or when you are working outside of the office,” said Peter Woo, a Los Angeles-based partner and vice chair of the employment and labor practice group with Goldberg Segalla LLP. “Most employers have that. I always have that in my handbooks that I draft for my clients.”

Lost in remote communication, whether it’s email or text message, is tone, which can lead employees to take “things the wrong way” if communication is too casual, said Mr. Woo, who represents employers. “Employers should still be cognizant of these inherent risks.”

“Sometimes communicating online there may be a tendency to be more casual with communications,” said LaDonna Lusher, New York-based partner with Virginia & Ambinder LLP, whose practice focuses on employment and discrimination law and who represents employees. “They need to be conducting business with the professionalism they would normally. Hopefully.”

One concern among those watching the changing workforce unfold are the sending of “memes” and “funny” emails that will likely replace jokes at the watercooler for a workforce now working from home, said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and Clarkston, Washington-based co-founder and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, which provides guidance for companies who wish to strengthen their policies. 

The problem is that a worker could be offended, he said.

That children or other family members could witness such communication is of concern, according to Jeff Adelson, a partner with the Newport Beach, California, firm Adelson McLean P.C., which represents employers.

With telecommuting, “you have opened the door to your own home space being a hostile work environment and you can’t let that happen,” he said, echoing the sentiment that renewed anti-harassment training is imperative.

“Innuendos, jokes, sharing of jokes, this endless list of things people find to entertain themselves because they are working from home have to stop,” said Mr. Adelson. “Employers should go out of their way to remind employees of the strict policies that they already have in their workplaces.” 

Mr. Namie called the phenomenon to be more casual and daring online, the “Facebook-izing” of workforce communication, where inappropriate humor and toxic personality traits could lead to a rise in hostile work environments. “You’ve seen the toxicity of Facebook? Online cruelty is unbelievable. Are we bringing out the trolls of the workforce by sending everybody home?”

Bullying is a concern, said Mr. Namie, adding that telecommuting workers are often subject to greater workforce aggression because perpetrators see a “window of opportunity” in virtual talk. “What you wouldn’t do face to face comes out online. What are some of these people like unfettered, unleashed at home? It is easier to be snarky and snappy and short and demanding online.” 

Ms. Lusher, meanwhile, says employees harassed or bullied at work could now have a greater protection: the notion that anything one says or does could be in print. “Many of the cases that we see are their word against theirs and nothing is in writing,” she said. “This could give them a record to go back and look.”

“People harassing people at work is not going to stop” with telecommuting, said Mr. Adelson. “But now what’s in written form could now be evidence.”

That records will be available should be addressed in training, Bart Perkins, Louisville, Kentucky-based president of Leverage Partners Inc., tells his clients, large companies that hire him to help with information technology strategy, including risk management. He said employees need to be reminded that all work communication is to be work-related.

Most larger companies have been ahead in addressing online communications, he said, but smaller companies now conducting business entirely online may be behind. “I think they will get there; the whole coronavirus issue has made all executives much, much more aware of the risks of remote communications.” 

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here