misconduct in the virtual environment

With a shift to Work From Home (WFH), many companies may think they no longer have to worry as much about workplace misconduct. But that isn’t the case, because even with reduced physical interaction and many colleagues interacting virtually, cyberbullying, harassment, and discriminatory practices are still thriving.

Blurred Lines in Remote Work

In some cases, the line between work and home life has been blurred with office best practices abandoned. Virtual communication provides a degree of anonymity that could lead people to act in ways they would not when face-to-face — similar to how the Internet and social media spurred cyberbullying. Off-the-cuff remarks about someone’s appearance or an improper joke on a Zoom meeting could be deemed offensive.

In fact, there’s been an uptick in offensive and hostile language encountered during the virtual workday, as reported by SteelEye, which develops surveillance tools for securities trading and communications in banking. Occurrences of harassment and intimidation are happening via WhatsApp or text messages where it’s difficult for employers to monitor.

Uptick in Bullying, Racial Discrimination

In addition, employees are being excluded from meetings and bullied over video calls, which is harder to do when colleagues are physically present in the office. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, racial discrimination, harassment, and bullying against Asian-Americans have reared their ugly heads. Moreover, economic uncertainty and financial stress can also breed harassment.

Rooting Out Misconduct

The negative impact of workplace misconduct on businesses can be significant, not only in terms of potential litigation but also in tarnishing a company’s reputation and diminishing employee productivity. Whether you’re back at work or working remotely, a company can’t afford to hit pause on keeping its culture healthy. Companies need to reinforce and step up their employment best practices in a work environment that has dramatically changed. This includes:

  • Emphasizing the company’s anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, anti-bullying messages.
  • Beefing up diversity/sensitivity training on recognizing different forms of discrimination and harassment, including a component on bystander training regarding what should be done when employees see or hear someone engaging in offensive conduct.
  • Being hyper-attentive so that potential discrimination does not occur now that individuals have an inside view of someone’s home life. If someone, for example, has to take care of a crying baby during a ZOOM meeting and is told it’s not necessary for him or her to be in on the call, this could have major ramifications. All employees, regardless of their personal lives, must be given equal access to promotions, training, and visibility.
  • Creating easier, non-adversarial reporting mechanisms for employees to share concerns and complaints. Consider using a third-party platform for recording and reporting workplace incidents so that employees feel comfortable about the process. Anonymous reporting should also be facilitated.
  • Ensuring all reasonable steps are taken to investigate an incident. This includes interviewing the people involved and looking for evidence that supports the incident. Clearly explain all allegations to the accused employee, and give him or her an opportunity to respond.
  • Making sure there are consequences as a result of the perpetrator’s misconduct.
  • Documenting everything, including a timeline of the incident(s) reported, the investigation findings, interviews, corroborative evidence, and the course of action taken.

The same employment laws apply in a remote-work landscape as they do in the office. It’s important to remain vigilant in protecting employees against workplace misconduct, and assure them that any incident will be handled swiftly and thoroughly.