Employment and Safeguarding Partner Farrer & Co
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Why HR must not overlook sexual harassment in the Covid-19 era

More than half of women and girls in a recent survey reported being subjected to online harassment. Virtual working is giving rise to new opportunities for abuse, so it’s time for HR to take swift and clear action.

3rd Nov 2020
Employment and Safeguarding Partner Farrer & Co
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Unhappy Woman At Home With Computer Being Bullied Online On Social Media
iStock/MachineHeadz

One of the largest ever global surveys of online harassment makes for sobering reading – 14,000 girls and women aged 15-25 across 22 countries participated in a landmark survey published by Plan International in October. Key findings revealed that:

  • 58% reported being harassed or abused online.
  • These young women were routinely subjected to explicit messages, cyber stalking and other forms of abuse.
  • Many were left feeling threatened and fearing for their physical safety.
  • The harassment had a profound toll on their confidence and wellbeing causing low self-esteem and mental and emotional distress, as well as causing problems at work and school.
  • 50% said that online harassment was more common than street harassment.

Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic from the survey, however, was that 40% said they experienced the harassment from people at work or school.

Why is this relevant for HR?

With the huge increase in online working, the use of many different virtual platforms, as well as more social media engagement, employees are more susceptible than ever to online forms of harassment and abusive behaviour. This could be from colleagues, clients or customers, third parties or anonymous social media users and could take the form of ‘jokes’, ‘banter’, explicit messages, graphic pictures or stalking. All of these behaviours are classed as harassment and can have a serious impact on the victim and the business.

The #MeToo movement has shown that sexual harassment, whether online or offline, happens in every single sector – it is an abuse of power and can impact anyone. While women are most commonly the victims, men can be victims too and all individuals can be witnesses to sexual harassment. Research also shows that people from sexual minority groups experience increased levels of harassment.

Whilst more of us working flexibly and remotely clearly has benefits on one level, it undoubtedly means more opportunity for online harassment.

The damaging consequences of sexual harassment are well known and can range from poor health, depression and loss of sleep to feelings of mistrust, embarrassment and anger. All will affect an employee’s ability to work. Sexual harassment can also have a broader detrimental impact on the business in terms of low morale amongst the workforce, poor opinions of colleagues and the loss of talented employees, not to mention the potential for costly grievances or tribunal cases and the ensuing damage to the business’ reputation.  

Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace should ordinarily be a priority for HR teams, but in this new working environment, the risks are heightened. It’s crucial that proactive, preventative steps are taken to safeguard employees from all forms of harassment so as to create and maintain workplaces that are safe and respectful in both their physical and virtual manifestations.  

Covid-19 upheaval

The restrictions put in place due to Covid-19 brought about enormous change to nearly every workplace. Social distancing, furloughing or remote working have all meant that nearly all employees find themselves operating in a changed working environment. This gives rise to a number of considerations relating to the risks for harassment:

  • Whilst more of us working flexibly and remotely clearly has benefits on one level, it undoubtedly means more opportunity for online harassment. For example, the likelihood of less supervision and increased scope for accessing colleagues at all times of the day and night on a one-to-one basis.
  • An increase in online harassment is only one part of the picture: for those back in the physical workplace, social distancing and government guidelines means fewer people or ‘bystanders’ present to witness or challenge inappropriate behaviour.
  • As we enter more difficult economic times, employees may be more reluctant to report issues for fear of losing their jobs or being seen as a troublemaker.

Precautionary steps for HR teams

With the #MeToo movement continuing to yield shocking revelations, there has never been a better time to focus on an anti-harassment strategy and there is plenty that HR teams can do. The actions that HR take in this area can also help demonstrate the ‘reasonable steps’ defence in an employment tribunal should the employer ever face a sexual harassment claim.

Reviewing codes of conduct and related anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies is critical, for example, to ensure that they explicitly cover online forms of harassment. Equally, it should be remembered that people, their attitudes and behaviour, are just as important as the policies and systems – the culture of the organisation is set by every single interaction.

A safe organisational culture will therefore include the introduction and regular review of:

  • Published codes of conduct
  • Training and awareness-raising
  • Staff support
  • Board commitment to protecting staff
  • Clear reporting methods and whistleblowing lines
  • Appropriate response to concerns and allegations
  • Surveys and ongoing monitoring to assess employees’ experiences and attitudes

Prevention is always better than cure, so while responding properly to concerns, allegations and cases is fundamental, being proactive with training, use of surveys and awareness-raising about online forms of abuse is also essential. With many people working entirely remotely, the profile of the HR team should also be elevated, clearly showing how employees can reach out to find support.

Whether it is online or offline, safer cultures are those that live their values, embed their policies and expectations from first interview to the last day of employment, instilling confidence in staff to raise issues and, when required, handle concerns or allegations promptly, fairly and sensitively. Much may have changed in our new working practices, but these fundamentals should remain consistent.  

Interested in this topic? Read Sexual harassment: why employers need to listen and learn from #MeToo.

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