With the shift to remote work given the COVID-19 pandemic, harassment claims could have decreased since employers canceled business trips, conferences, and happy hours. However, it appears that the harassment actually increased and instead just moved online.
Indicators of Harassment
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a Select Task Force Study of Harassment in the Workplace in 2016. This report, as part of the findings, discusses risk factors that increase the likelihood of harassment. One or more of these risk factors indicate that harassment is more likely to occur. The report highlights the following as risk factors for harassment:
- Homogenous workforces indicated a lack of diversity in the workplace
- Workplaces where some workers do not conform to workplace norms, which is where a minority of workers do not conform to societal stereotypes
- Cultural and language differences amongst employees in the workplace
- Coarsened social discourse outside the workplace, events that occur outside the workplace can have an influence on how individuals interact within the workplace
- Many young employees in the workforces
- Workplaces with “high value” employees, workplaces where some employees bring in big projects or clients
- Significant power disparities within the workplaces, an example includes factories where there are plant managers and assembly line workers
- Workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction
- Employment where work is monotonous or consists of low-intensity tasks, meaning when workers have more free time there is a higher likelihood of harassment
- Isolated workplaces, when workers are physically isolated or have few opportunities to work with others
- Workplace cultures that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption
- Decentralized workplaces, work environments that have limited communication between organization levels such as retail stores and corporate offices
The Factors and COVID-19
Of these factors, some have been enlarged by the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. For example, more people are working remotely increasing the isolation of employees. Further, there is coarsened political discourse in light of the increased attacks on Asian Americans. Since the pandemic began, Asian Americans have reported nearly 3,800 hate crimes, which is a fraction of the number of cases that actually occur. Experts believe this increased violence is caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and derogatory statements aimed at the Asian community over the past year. These factors may contribute to why there has been an increase in online harassment.
The EEOC has not yet released a formal study about harassment during the pandemic. But anecdotal evidence and empirical data indicate that harassment has increased and moved online. More interactions in the workplace are occurring over e-mail, video conference, social media, and instant messaging. And, it seems that some employees are using this opportunity to leverage digital messaging to harass their colleagues.
There are indications that harassment is even greater than before lockdown, with colleagues moving the intimidation online. There is no longer a concern about an employee physically threatening a colleague. Instead, the harassment has moved to text messages or other messaging services on personal phones. Further, the harassment moving to personal devices, makes it harder for employers to monitor messages.
Experts find there are two key reasons harassment is increasing as work moves online. First, virtual communication provides greater anonymity than in-person interactions. Second, the stress of the pandemic caused some working relationships to break down. This breakdown in professional barriers emboldens some employees to act inappropriately towards their colleagues.
As employers begin to plan for operations to resume in-person, it is necessary to consider how harassment that began online can crossover into the physical workplace. Further, employers must seriously address the complaints and concerns of employees about harassment or hate related to the pandemic.
Whether you are facing harassment at work or online, we can help. At McOmber McOmber & Luber, we take a proactive approach to each and every legal issue our clients face. Call our Red Bank office at 732-842-6500, our Marlton office at 856-985-9800, our Newark office at 973-878-9040, or contact us at 888-396-0736 or online for a free consultation.