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Workplace Harassment in the Age of Remote Work

Workplace Harassment in the Age of Remote Work

The past year has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging in history for employers. Between attempting to keep workforces employed, to balancing the books, to keeping customers and clients safe and healthy, businesses of all sizes have faced one challenge after another. When remote work became near universal in many industries, some employers began to rejoice in a perception that issues of workplace harassment would dramatically reduce. After all, reduced interaction seemingly would lead to a lesser opportunity for offensive incidents taking place. However, we soon found out that video conferencing applications and a shift toward online interaction very much afforded the opportunity for bad acts to occur. Unfortunately, instead of a reduction in employee complaints of harassment, we have actually witnessed an increase.

Survey Responses Show Surprising Results

In March 2021, the non-profit diversity and inclusion think tank “Project Include” conducted a survey (results just released) of over 2700 employees in over 48 countries to determine the impact of Covid-19 on a variety of issues, namely workplace harassment. A stunning 85% of respondents reported an increase in workplace anxiety, hostility, and tension following a move to remote work, with a 25% increase in offensive behavior between March 2020 and February 2021. Included in the results are an increase in race-based harassment as well as gender-based hostility. Importantly, according to the study, these issues are occurring across the age and gender spectrum. Project Include’s findings show harassment moving from “physical and in-person actions to online and technology-based forms.” So, what does this mean, and more importantly, what can we do to curb the increase?

Reasons for an Increase in Harassment and Hostility

While theories differ among experts, isolation and a decrease in peer-to-peer interaction are the simplest explanation for a motivational increase in hostile and offensive behavior. This means people are bored in their environment and are engaging in riskier behavior online than they would in person. Think of the internet troll who hides behind a computer screen to post messages they never would say to another person’s face. This concept has evolved into the workplace.

When on a video conference or conference call employees are simply willing to take more liberties with their language, speech, or conversation. In our own business, hotline and client complaints to Syntrio are revealing more and more that people are willing to say and do things in a remote environment that they simply never would have done in a physical office environment, and this is obviously troubling. But even if we can explain why there has been an increase in harassment and incivility in the remote environment, we still must be cognizant of the best approaches to curbing this behavior.

Updating Policies and Training are Critical to Combatting Remote Harassment

Although it should be assumed that the same rules apply in or out of the office, it is critical for your organization to review its policies to ensure that it is clear there will be zero tolerance for offensive behavior of any kind (illegal or not) in the remote environment. Your employees must explicitly be made aware that when working remotely they still represent the organization and their actions can and will subject them to discipline.

All too many employees feel that if they are away from the office the rules don’t apply, and unfortunately, they need to be reminded of that fact. To that end, it is increasingly important that your organization ensure you are using training products that are contemporary and discuss the remote working environment. For example, if you have been using the same videos for years you are well behind the times, and your training is outdated and no longer can make its intended impact. You must also ensure that your training programs apply equally to managers and non-supervisory employees so that everyone is receiving the same message that offensive behavior will not be tolerated in any environment.

Syntrio’s training content is up to date and refreshed for a remote world. We would love the opportunity to discuss how we can help your organization retrofit its policies and practices (as well as your program of corporate education) to fit the ever-changing needs of the remote workplace. Syntrio feels that a comprehensive education program aimed at improving office culture is the best way to prevent incidents and keep your workforce engaged and happy. Contact us today to discuss how we can provide solutions for your harassment, discrimination, diversity, equity and inclusion and workplace civility training needs.

In the past several years we have seen a number of important societal changes that have increased awareness of offensiveness and incivility in the workplace. From the #MeToo movement’s focus on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace to increased attention on marginalized race and ethnic groups via horrifying interactions between minorities and the police, there is an increased focus on raising concerns. Add the fact that changes have occurred amidst remote work during a global pandemic, and it is easy to see why employee tolerance for offensiveness, bullying, and incivility is thankfully at an all-time low. Given the increased sensitivity in the workplace, leaders certainly need to focus their organizational culture on eliminating incivility and increasing an understanding of bias and how we can minimize its impact on day-to-day interpersonal relationships throughout organizations of all sizes.

What is a Civil and Respectful Workplace?

A civil and respectful workplace is at its core a positive work culture. Where a culture of civility is the norm, people treat one another positively and embrace different ideas (rather than scrutinize them). Civility (or lack thereof) is at the root of many important HR issues such as harassment, discrimination, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Beyond the legal issues, however, is the importance that a workforce performs its duties in an environment where they are comfortable and feel supported by their peers. Additionally, in a civil and respectful workplace, employees are not afraid to voice concerns, and know that there will be no negative consequences if they report an issue to their leaders.

The essential element of a respectful workplace is leadership’s promotion of (and management style via) a mantra of treating others the way you would feel comfortable being treated, thereby promoting the community aspect of work. This sounds overly simplistic, but it truly is the best way to get the message across to your workforce. Each member of society has identifiable characteristics that make them unique. When differences are celebrated and incorporated into the organizations’ culture there is an inherent drive toward civility. Therefore, it is essential to promote a culture of inclusiveness in order to create a civil and respectful workplace.

Bias and the Civil and Respectful Workplace

When working towards workplace civility, it is critical to understand the role of bias in incivility we all have biases, both conscious and unconscious, and naturally gravitate toward those with similar beliefs, interests, or backgrounds. All too often there is a focus on eliminating bias in the workplace in order to improve culture. Bias elimination is a misguided theory however, given the fact many of our own biases are unconscious, and therefore not at the forefront of our self-awareness. Instead of eliminating bias, in order to promote a civil and respectful workplace we should be mindful of our biases, so as not to allow them to get in the way of tolerance and inclusion of beliefs. When we acknowledge that we have predispositions yet are willing to learn from others whose beliefs, experiences, and background might be different our minds are able to open, thereby increasing respect and civility toward others.

How to Move Forward

A civil and respectful workplace begins at the top. Executives, managers, and all organizational leaders must first buy into the concept of why a civil and respectful workplace is important. A recent US EEOC study revealed 38% of respondents in an uncivil environment decreased their commitment to the organization, 80% spent time worrying about incident(s) of bullying or incivility, 44% intentionally decreased civility, and 47% intentionally decreased time spent at work. Given research has revealed as high as 98% of employees report witnessing incivility at work it is clear the risks to productivity are extremely high. Accordingly, it is extremely important that organizations and their leadership treat the civil and respectful workplace as something that must be achieved, rather than as aspirational. But how?

In addition to buying into the concept, leadership must be willing to make the workforce understand that they are not just preaching civility, but also practicing it. Education programs must go far beyond statutorily required training and into concepts that will actually get the workforce interacting and believing in a different way. But training is just one aspect. Organizations must ensure that employees are comfortable stepping in when they feel something is wrong and also reporting incivility to leadership without fear of retaliation of any kind. When comments and concerns are embraced, not just by management but also by co-workers, employees are proven to relax. To get to this point, organizations must be willing to provide appropriate resources. The bottom line is failing to do so is failing the workforce as a whole.

We all make many decisions during a typical day on the job. While most of these decisions are black and white, there are times when we must determine whether an action we’re contemplating crosses an ethical line. For example, should you accept ballgame tickets from a supplier, even though you think it might be against company policy to do so? Or, you discover that some of the information you’ve included in a proposal isn’t true, but if you tell the client, you know it will ruin the deal.

In many cases, choosing the unethical path may result in a short-term gain, but it can have severe consequences for you or your organization in the long run. If your employer finds out that you accepted the tickets to the sporting event, you could lose your job. And when the client realizes you fudged the figures on your proposal, he will likely take his business elsewhere – and steer others away from the organization.

The Benefits of Integrating Ethics into Decision Making

It isn’t always easy to do the right thing. There can be pressure from colleagues, customers, and in some cases, supervisors to cut corners or break the rules, and it’s easy to fall into the “everyone else is doing it” trap. But taking the time to weigh the ethical pros and cons of your decisions will benefit you and the organization a variety of ways:


  • Earning the respect and trust of your coworkers and customers
  • Avoiding dilemmas that could have significant legal, financial or reputational repercussions for you and the organization
  • Helping the organization maintain a favorable status within the industry
  • Making a positive contribution to the development of a healthier, more productive workplace culture
  • Having the peace of mind that comes from knowing you did what you believe to be the right thing

A Model for Ethical Decision-Making in the Workplace

Since making ethical decisions poses a challenge for many employees, it helps to have a framework that will lead you through the process. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University offers the following five-step methodology to guide you in the right direction:

1. Recognize an ethical issue: The first step entails having the ability to identify a potential ethical dilemma when it presents itself. You’ll need to determine whether the decision or situation could cause harm to another employee, a workgroup or the entire organization. You’ll also have to gauge whether you need to select between a good and a bad option, two good options or two bad options. Furthermore, you’ll have to determine if the issue is more about what is legal or what is most efficient.

2. Gather the facts: The more facts you can obtain about a situation, the greater the likelihood that you will make an ethical decision. Take the time to gather all the relevant facts – including those that have yet to come to light. Consult with others who may be impacted by the outcome of your action. Don’t move forward until you feel confident that you have enough information to make the best decision.

3. Evaluate the alternatives: There are several approaches you can take to assessing all available decision-making options at your disposal:


  • Deciding which alternative will deliver the most good and do the least harm
  • Deciding which option best protects the rights of everyone involved in the outcome
  • Deciding which alternative is the fairest to all parties
  • Deciding which option best promotes the common good
  • Deciding which option is most in line with your personal values and “moral compass”

4. Make and test a decision: Review all the approaches listed above and determine which one is most applicable to your situation – and then make your decision. Rather than putting it out there and hoping for the best, try taking it for a “test drive” to see how you feel about it. Consider this question before acting: “If I told someone I respect what I’m about to do, how would he or she react?” If you’re not happy with the answer, reevaluate, and if necessary, repeat the first three steps.

5. Act and reflect: When you’re finally satisfied with your decision, it’s time to act. Implement your action in a way that best addresses the concerns of everyone who has a stake in the outcome. Assess the results and look for opportunities to improve your ethical decision-making process as you move forward.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law on behalf of management. Jonathan focuses his practice on advising employers on the prevention of harassment and discrimination issues, with an emphasis on providing in-person harassment training programs to companies of all sizes. Jonathan is licensed in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and maintains a national advice practice.

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