Equity, privilege, and work climate have been a central discussion as organizations seek to address longstanding and systemic societal and workplace inequities. Many of these inequities have been illuminated by the disparate impact of the global pandemic, the resulting mental health crisis that is affecting communities in uneven ways, and the social justice movement.  At the center of these topics is the discussion about what companies can do in actionable and sustainable ways to create healthy, inclusive, and equitable workplaces and communities. 

Addressing issues of workplace culture, inequities, disparities, and the reconciliation process can be polarizing, evoke strong emotions and, if not approached with intention, can spur counterproductive work dynamics. But not addressing these issues creates a greater risk of a toxic workplace culture, legal claims, and other organizational and individual harm. A necessary part of this effort is to acknowledge the tie between diversity, equity and inclusion practice and discrimination and harassment prevention efforts, and plan an integrated plan of action. 

Many leaders wonder, though, what they could or should be doing, especially given the remote nature of much work that is taking place during the COVID-19 crisis. We recently presented a webinar with the Professionals in Human Resources Association (PIHRA) entitled It’s On Us: How Leader Intervention Drives Inclusion and Prevents Inequity, and were able to respond to some critical questions from attendees.  

COVID-19, Remote Work, and Workplace Harassment

One of the top-of-mind questions from attendees: “How have harassment and micro-aggressions changed in the COVID era?”

It’s not surprising that this has emerged as an important issue to address. Workplace harassment and microaggressions can occur anywhere and through any means, and remote work environments are no exception. In fact, it’s an issue recognized by the EEOC as one of the top risk factors of harassment: harassment tends to occur when people are in remote, or isolated, environments. 

For instance, a cleaning crew that works alone in the evenings, people working a night shift, or hospitality staff in a hotel who may be alone in a room when a customer comes in are at a higher risk of experiencing harassment.

That same principle and the dynamics around those types of workplace harassment can also occur in digital environments. Unfortunately, people tend to feel that, when no one is looking over their shoulder, traditional rules do not apply—there is a perception of less accountability when the behavior occurs digitally, as opposed to in person. 

Prevent Harassment & Discrimination

Harassment training for the modern workplace can be challenging. EVERFI presents bite-sized content designed with your employees in mind to set the stage for discussing a positive workplace culture.

Digital Civility

Operating in a remote or hybrid workplace environment compounds the effect of an overall decline in digital civility. A 2019 study from Microsoft—The Digital Civility Index—indicates that civility is at its lowest point in many years. In addition, the casual nature of digital platforms can compound the risk of harassment online through inappropriate jokes, ridicule, or sexual or racial innuendo that are sent quickly and without second thought via chats, texts, or email. Finally, the fact that so much of the workforce will continue to work remotely creates a recipe that really calls for our attention to maintain a positive workplace culture.

The current situation where many employees are working remotely and interacting through Zoom meetings, for instance, can give rise to offhand comments that may, nevertheless, offend: “Are you really wearing pants today?” These types of casual interactions can easily evolve into harassing behavior. It’s important for companies and their HR staff members to review policies to ensure that it’s clear that their anti-harassment policies apply in a remote environment as well as in the workplace. Of equal importance is widely and regularly socializing that policy throughout the organization and making reporting protocols easily accessible. 

Communication: Key Best Practice to Address Harassment in a Digital Environment

The big takeaway: make sure professional and respectful communication is top-of-mind and ongoing. Communicate the idea that, even in an online environment, there is no tolerance around exclusive, uncivil, harassing or discriminatory behaviors. And be very clear about the processes by which reporting happens. 

Now may be a good time to:

  1. Remind employees of the importance of civil interactions with others even, and perhaps especially, during digital interactions. 
  2. Make sure employees recognize their individual roles and responsibilities for helping to build and support a workplace culture of mutual respect and inclusion. 
  3. Serve as a role model during digital interactions by exhibiting strong, respectful, communication skills. 
  4. Recognize the positive communication efforts of others and act as quickly as possible to communicate with employees who may not be adhering to company policies or expectations around respectful communication.

These may be different times for all of us, but one thing remains constant: the need for inclusive communication, always. 

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