The current global pandemic has forced a large percentage of people to stay indoors, thus requiring many employees to work from home. While these circumstances might have initially been seen as an obstacle to nefarious behaviors in the workplace like harassment, incidents that have been brought to light in the past months seem to highlight that this is not the case. The most infamous incident that comes to mind involved Jeffrey Tobin, where the famed political commentator and columnist for the New Yorker was seen acting inappropriately while on a company Zoom call.
This incident only highlights the need for companies to reinforce and remind employees of company policies on harassment and appropriate behavior for interactions on video conferencing and other work-related social media. The casual nature of working from home has caused potential violators to simply move their predatory and problematic behavior to the digital realm. According to a study on workplace harassment conducted by the EEOC, decentralized or isolated workplaces were factors that only complicated harassment claims. In these types of scenarios it is increasingly less likely that bystanders can intervene and stop such predatory behavior from occurring, and the fact that the behavior is happening virtually causes some victims to be hesitant in reporting. Perhaps the persistence of these types of incidents in light of the virtual communication can be attributed to the intrusion of workplace into the homes and thus the personal lives of employees. Moreover, the blurring of lines between the workplace and the home, and the increased feelings of isolation may also contribute to increased incidents of harassment.
Regardless of the reasoning or contributing factors, companies must make strong efforts to continually enforce and remind employees of harassment prevention policies and even adapt those policies to better protect employees who are now forced to work in the digital space. Notably it is important to remember that states with mandated policies for anti-harassment training, such as New York have continued to enforce these policies during the pandemic. It is largely the responsibility of the Human Resources of a company to ensure that employees are both aware of policies on concerning harassment in the workplace, and aware of the mechanisms put into place to effectively report and address such instances.
If you or your H.R. department have any questions concerning implementing and more effectively enforcing anti-discrimination policies in a virtual workspace environment, please do not hesitate to call us at 516-888-1208 or email Cynthia Augello at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to Joel Thomas, JD for his assistance with this post.
 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, (2016), https://www.eeoc.gov/select-task-force-study-harassment-workplace#_Toc453686305