Partially Remote Teams May Face Increased Risk of This Human Resources Nightmare, Legal Experts Say

Woman on video call


Profile Picture
Move up in your career
Workplace issues such as harassment didn’t magically disappear with remote work. In fact, they have even become more pervasive.
For employers, it’s a potential human resources and legal nightmare.
“Harassment hasn’t stopped because we’re all working from home. In fact, perhaps the opposite. While some employers still have employees on-site and will inevitably deal with some sort of allegation or claim, employers with remote workers still face a significant — and perhaps increased — risk,” said employment attorney Damien H. Weinstein of Weinstein + Klein.

Why virtual work can increase the likelihood of harassment

“COVID has overall made the workplace less formal,” Klein said. “Encounters are more casual, people are maybe less rigid, and this leads to some comments that may be OK with close friends and family but might cross the line with [co-workers].”
Tim Mousseau, a safety and boundaries researcher who is also a survivor of workplace sexual harassment, agreed.
“Virtual meetings such as Zoom have the chance to normalize harassment, especially when used in a work-from-home setting,” he said. “When communicating in virtual settings, boundaries between work and personal life can feel lost. In turn, people might treat work relationships to be less professional than they are.”
According to Mousseau, if you’re talking with someone and looking out into their living room, your perception of them subconsciously shifts — and that’s where one of the dangers lies in terms of accidental harassment. Plus, too many people think of harassment as only physical, which is another blind spot.
“It is too easy to lump harassing behaviors into unwanted touching or related to the body,” he said. “Thus, many may miss how harassment can still occur as manipulations of power dynamics, invasions of privacy, and especially on a verbal level.”
Weinstein added that the murky work-life balance brought on by remote work can also get people in trouble.
“Employees are more likely to communicate during off-hours,” he said. “Those communications may be more likely to be the result of someone drinking, partying, or otherwise not observing the formalities of the nine-to-five. … The ability to stay connected at any time, over several platforms, has broken down some of the barriers and formalities of the office, and that’s resulted in a greater likelihood of a bad comment or remark.”

What you should know about accidental harassment

If you’re wondering whether you’ve been inadvertently harassing your teammates or been subjected to harassment yourself, there is one important thing you should keep in mind: There are nuances to workplace harassment, and being aware of them can help you avoid the escalation of harmful behavior.
“When considering harassment, it is essential to broaden our perceptions to understand that harassing behaviors are more than the most egregious and harmful behaviors,” Mousseau said. “People may engage in more minor acts of harassment and not even consider it as such. … It is easy to miss more routine violations or smaller moments when only looking at the most extreme examples. By being mindful that harassment starts small, it can help professionals be mindful about the actions of themselves and others.”

Examples of unintentional harassment

In order to bring light to the issue of unintentional harassment while working remotely, you need to wrap your head around what qualifies as accidental harassment on Zoom.
Unintentional harassment includes things like making comments about people’s personal lives, such as their dating and relationship habits, or commenting on someone’s appearance. Even noting that someone has lost weight or changed their everyday outfits can veer into problematic territory.
“Sometimes, people might make these comments as they try to rebuild a social or community feeling, but too often, this fails to account for whether or not the other person wanted the input or feedback,” Mousseau said. “Also, people should never be diminished to their looks, and bringing up personal relationships at work is always a risk of how it might be construed.”

How to avoid accidental Zoom harassment

So if harassing workmates over Zoom or other virtual platforms is so insidious, how can you avoid it?
It starts with encouraging a presumption of positive intent, according to Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Relay Payments. That doesn’t mean excusing harassment. But it does mean beginning with positive intentions and communicating honestly. She encourages her staff to address situations directly.
“At Relay Payments, we encourage a presumption of positive intent,” she said. “As humans, we’re all fallible, and I believe it’s our responsibility to give grace when reasonable. That doesn’t mean turning the other cheek to overt, inappropriate behavior.
“How do you know where to draw the line? Depending on your relationship, if you’re comfortable, you should address it as soon as it’s appropriate. It doesn’t have to be rude, something direct like, ‘That’s really not appropriate,’ or even more casual, a subtle ‘Too far’ should make a similar point.”
If you’re on the receiving end of such a comment, take note and take it seriously. Your co-worker may be warning you that you’ve crossed a boundary.
As far as communication goes, be proactive in asking your team about their boundaries.
“Remember that just because you have access to virtual communication tools, you do not always need to use them,” Mousseau said. “There is a difference between having the capabilities to communicate 24/7 and the desire to communicate all the time. Letting people define their boundaries ensures that you are not making a mistake.”
Finally, remember that, if you want to avoid unintentional harassment on Zoom, avoiding certain topics is best, given the fact you naturally have your guard down.
“Similar to the bold statements people sometimes make over text or phone, where you can ‘hide,’ Zoom has one foot in that camp and one foot in the ‘real-world’ camp via video,” Zimmerman said. “To avoid any perceived harassment, it’s best to just avoid topics or comments over Zoom that you wouldn’t share in the office.”
Mousseau said that you can never assume that someone you’re communicating with remotely is on the same wavelength as you.
“Be careful about the type of information you are bringing up and discussing,” Mousseau said. “What might feel social for you can feel invasive for another. Never bring up a personal issue unless someone else does first. This gives them control over what they discuss at work.”
Additionally, he recommended watching your jokes and private comments in direct messages even if you think you’re being funny.
“It is easy to misread nonverbal cues over virtual calls, and someone might take your words differently, or you may not notice someone’s discomfort at your comments,” he said.
— Anouare Abdou
This article originally appeared on Ladders