Preventing Harassment In The Remote Workforce- A Common Gap in Compliance Programs

November 5, 2020 | Activate Learning, Reskill Your Workforce | 6 min read

Bullying and sexual harassment are growing areas of concern for all organizations. A 2019 survey by revealed that 90% of respondents had been bullied in the workplace— with 51% of those by a boss or manager. Harassment, in particular, introduces legal risk. It is defined as the mistreatment of a protected class and is illegal.

Most corporations have a structured program to address all forms of harassment in the workplace. Policies document what can be displayed in the office, how to socialize at company events, and training programs that spotlight areas of risk.

Unfortunately, most focus on scenarios that don’t fully reflect the challenges of harassment and bullying with a remote workforce. Yet we know employees can become complacent and less formal when they conduct business from their home, which increases the organization’s risk as a whole.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other regulatory bodies have been quick to remind us that our responsibilities to address workplace harassment have not abated during the pandemic. “Employers can help reduce the chance of harassment by explicitly communicating to the workforce that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic, including their national origin, race, or other prohibited bases.”


When we consider harassment in the workplace, our mind often wanders to the headlines. “One in three women experience sexual harassment at tech events,” or “Harvey Weinstein: Timeline of Hollywood Success and Hidden Abuse.” Search additional headlines at your own risk. There are disturbing stories of abuse across all sectors.

Those well-known abuses remain a major concern for organizations, but there are many more risks that we need to address as well. For example, in a recent survey of 1,100 working adults over the age of 18 in the U.S.A., Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that one in five women say they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls. Additionally, three in five female employees say they feel like their prospects of getting a promotion are worse in their new remote work environment.

Just like in the physical workplace, many different forms of harassment and bullying, such as the list below, can take place virtually. Employees are particularly prone to hostile work environments where a physically distanced workplace creates a more relaxed atmosphere.

  • 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
  • Shutting down someone’s contributions to a discussion, for example, by muting their line selectively
  • Unwanted invitations to date

Instances of remote workforce harassment are far too common. One 2020 study on workplace cyberbullying conducted found that 17% of the general Finnish population had experienced cyberbullying, using electronic communication to intimidate or threaten, at work. Remote workers are vulnerable.

The surge of employees working from home due to the pandemic response has created a new urgency we can’t ignore. Even tech-savvy companies must re-evaluate their policies and remind employees of their rules. Recently, Google asked employees to monitor their internal message board posts more closely after a spike in posts flagged for racism or abuse were identified.


Three factors make monitoring compliance for a remote workforce particularly challenging.

  1. Proximity matters to employees who have experienced harassment. Employees who might cross paths with a manager or HR professional immediately following an incident could be more likely to report the concern. When working remotely, reporting requires additional steps.
  2. According to a Hiscox study, 45% of employees have observed harassment in the workplace. Knowing there were others to corroborate the story gives employees the confidence to file a complaint. When working remotely, the chances of not having a witness is higher.
  3. The use of personal devices makes monitoring of communications a challenge. Where possible, it’s important to encourage the use of network connections and company-supplied devices that maintain an audit trail and can be archived.

The multi-generational workforce has created new tensions in the workplace. Age-related claims of harassment are on the rise. A 2019 Monster survey found that “nearly two out of three workers ages 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job.” The survey reflected that 91% of the respondents who reported age bias said they believe that age discrimination is common.

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The pandemic has accelerated our need to re-evaluate our harassment policies and compliance training related to remote work. However, the pressure to step up our compliance practices is not new. Across the globe, we have seen a surge in regulatory support for stronger anti-harassment measures.

One hundred and ninety-three countries have committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,which highlights the key targets each country aims to reach by 2030. Goal number five focuses on achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women—a significant indicator of the world’s commitment to protecting female employees.

In the United Kingdom, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has taken steps aimed specifically at preventing harassment outside of the physical workplace by documenting that discussions held in public and on social media can be classified as workplace harassment.

We see similar actions in Saudi Arabia, where they are cracking down on harassment to increase female participation in the workplace. They introduced anti-harassment regulations that went into effect in October 2019.

No matter where your employees work, the need to create a safe, harassment-free environment are growing.


There are five important steps you can take to mitigate your risk.

1. Help employees adapt to remote work environments.

  • Encourage employees to survey their surroundings for items that would be inappropriate to display at work, even when working from private spaces.
  • Remind employees that they are still at work and are discouraged from letting their guard down, particularly when having conversations in informational channels such as social andn chat forums.
  • Limit the use of unsecured communication channels when communicating with peers to discourage security breaches that can lead to information leakage and unwelcome intrusions known as “Zoom bombing.”

2. Clarify remote work policies. It’s important to remember that during an outbreak such as COVID-19, all employees are operating under increased stress. This can affect their mental health and lead to increased harassment. Make it clear to your employees that harassment is illegal even under strained work conditions. Carefully review your harassment policies and update language related to remote work to ensure expectations are well documented, even for those who might be working from home for the first time.

3. Reinforce your anonymous reporting hotlines. A report from SHRM noted that 57% of misconduct reports were anonymous. Unfortunately, most of those reports lack detail. Ensure your remote employees know who to turn to for help when their normal check-ins with management might be infrequent or through new channels.

4. Evaluate your compliance training program and audit classes for coverage of remote work environments.

5. Update employee pledges for those new to remote work to ensure they understand new risks and compliance practices.