Virtual Harassment: What is It and How to Stop It

October 19, 202112:29 pm1188 views
Virtual Harassment: What is It and How to Stop It
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This article is a guest post.

With so many businesses working remotely, HR teams are facing new challenges due to an increase in virtual harassment and cyber-bullying. In Asia, the extent of virtual harassment is yet to be properly measured since COVID-19 began, but there is growing evidence emerging from the legal profession, mental health experts, and businesses that virtual harassment may now be more prevalent than harassment that occurs in traditional office settings.

What we are learning is that remote workers are vulnerable, and when harassment happens, they are isolated from support. HR leaders must therefore be proactive in updating their procedures to address this and bring it to the attention of senior leaders. Let’s look further at the issue, and how HR teams can go about preventing it.

What does virtual harassment look like?

Harassment can take on many forms, and just like in the physical workplace, many different forms of harassment and bullying also occur virtually. Employees are particularly prone to hostile work environments where a physically distanced workplace creates a more relaxed atmosphere. Virtual harassment can include:

  • Threats made via email or instant messaging .
  • Electronic communications that contain racist, gender-biased, or other offensive material.
  • Spreading rumors about an employee or purposefully keeping them out of the loop on a project that should include them.
  • Text or instant messages complaining about an employee’s work in an excessive manner.
  • Inappropriate material on display during video calls. For example, a recent article published by Wired in the UK revealed the testimonials provided by women in response to a survey commissioned by women’s rights charity. In one account, a female worker said: “The director of the company uses Zoom to take screenshots of myself and other women which he shares with colleagues making derogatory statements and implying the photos look like we’re doing sexual acts.”
  • Shutting down someone’s contributions to a discussion, for example, by muting their line selectively.
  • Unwanted invitations to date.
What to do about virtual harassment

Preventing virtual harassment requires its own approach beyond traditional approaches to workplace harassment. This falls into two parts.

Effective training

A proven method of effective training is ‘bystander intervention’ training, where participants are asked to work together to identify the problem and find a solution; in other words, teaching people to empathize and be active bystanders. This includes a broad mix of scenario-based workplace interactions, expert commentary, a facilitator who guides the learner, as well as objective tests and exercises. Courses present the scenario-based video learning content, followed by scenario-based exercises that challenge the learner’s understanding of their responsibilities, and supplements both with periodic knowledge checks to validate the learning. This method offers real-life context – establishing empathy and giving the learner the opportunity to consider ways they can be part of the solution – while the academic content reinforces the rules and psychological rationale.

Additionally, it is important that one size does not fit all: training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and different cohorts of employees. Selecting the right learning partner who can customize the content according to the type of business and the location of employees is vital.

An inclusive, remote-first culture

The other important thing to remember is that training cannot occur in a vacuum. Virtual harassment is far less likely to be a problem within a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top, places a very strong focus on diversity & inclusion, and translates this into a remote work setting. For example, there is now much evidence showing that the domestic load for women has grown during the pandemic, who have assumed greater caring and home-schooling duties. Creating policies that allow all employees to function productively and according to their environment is vital for remote teams. A culture that is remote-first and built on respect will naturally mean that employees themselves are effective gatekeepers for virtual harassment.

With these tactics in mind, HR teams can begin to formulate a more strategic and comprehensive approach towards a safer and more inclusive environment where virtual harassment has no place – a purpose far nobler than simply ticking the ’training complete’ box.

Author Bio

Rosie Cairnes is Vice President, Asia Pacific for Skillsoft.

Rosie has 25 years of experience working with both national and global organizations across a wide variety of industry sectors and government agencies. Specializing in cloud-based learning and performance support solutions, Rosie’s goal is to help organizations align learning with strategic business goals to deliver quantifiable results and impact that benefit both the organizations and their employees.  

Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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