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Sexual Harassment: Now Digital and Still Happening

A blog by Andy Favell – CMP Associate Investigator

Consultancy 26th January 2021

The COVID-19 crisis during 2020 caused many of us to revaluate the way we work and rapidly accelerated the number of professionals working remotely. This is a trend that is only going to continue in 2021 and beyond, not just because of necessary Government rules but also because many organisations are realising the multiple benefits of having diverse and dispersed yet digitally connected teams.

However, just because more of us are working remotely doesn’t mean that traditional problems associated with workplaces have disappeared….far from it. This includes sexual harassment.

A recent study carried out by Rights of Women on behalf of the Independent reported that 25% of women had suffered some form of digital harassment while working remotely.

So, what constitutes digital sexual harassment?

Although there is no formal definition (yet) you only really need to use your imagination.  Incidents can range from the seemly innocuous:

  • inappropriate remarks to someone about looking sexy on-screen or sounding ‘hot’ when using a headset
  • the circulation of sexual or sexist jokes
  • misuse of instant messenger (IM) apps whereby a colleague sends another unwanted sexual comment or makes sexual advances

More serious examples might also include:

  • taking and sharing inappropriate screenshots
  • unauthorised recording and sharing of video/audio clips
  • cyber flashing – the intentional revealing of intimate body parts using a web or phone camera

This data is often shared with some derogatory annotations or comments, sometimes even being converted to Memes or Gifs that can be instantly circulated to a wide group at a swipe or click.

As the majority of perpetrators seem to be male, I recently conducted my own rather non-scientific sample, with a limited number of trusted female friends. I quickly discovered that many had indeed a fairly recent anecdote to share that ranged from inappropriate digital flirting, right up to a ‘dick pic’ being shown on a group Zoom call!

Issues have also been highlighted with managers quickly setting up alternative channels of communication that may pose a risk, if not managed well.  This included how previously unknown personal mobile phone numbers were disclosed when setting up a WhatsApp group, enabling unsolicited sexual comments to be sent to individuals by IM.

So, what should leaders and HR professionals take from this snap-shot study?

“Well, that’s a hard-one” a colleague quipped to me the other day, when I mentioned this topic! Although in reality, I don’t think it really is that difficult.

For starters, organisational leaders need to put aside the assumption that just because people are now working remotely, they cannot be a victim to harassment or bullying. Out of sight is certainly not out of mind. Indeed, with our ubiquitous smartphone never far from our fingers, it could be argued that it is now even easier for this sort of conduct to occur as you don’t even need to physically work with the people concerned and it could be conducted (and received) from literally anywhere, on or off-duty, regardless of the time zone.

Employers and HR professional need to be alert that this can and IS happening and take steps to address this including:

  1. Updating policies on use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) systems and apps, linking these to existing policies setting-out general expected standards of conduct for both employees and contractors
  2. Even if well-intentioned, ensure that leaders and managers recognise the risks of divulging personal information that other colleagues may not have previously had access to
  3. Provide suitable training to ensure that employees understand the boundaries of expected conduct when using ICT and that everyone is both expected and empowered to call-out poor behaviour. This is especially important if new systems and facilities have been rolled out recently and requires leadership by example.

It is also really important that there is a system allowing employees to confidentially report matters that concern them and that leaders act upon these concerns quickly, taking them seriously. If you don’t think it is a problem within your organisation, how do you know? What checks and balances are there already in existence?

When it comes to examining incidents of digital harassment, the principles of a good investigation are still relevant:

  1. Formulate a proportionate investigation plan that follows organisational policy and procedure
  2. Establish the facts by listening carefully to what is being divulged, when and how incidents have occurred. Maintain an open mind and pay attention also to the impact(s) that are being disclosed and any immediate support that can be provided
  3. Collect examples of evidence; this could include files sent over email or IM, screenshots or even digital photos of smartphone screens

It would also be important to consider:

  1. How any ICT background data is used in the investigation, especially if some private use of ICT systems is allowed and there is a risk of intruding deep into colleague’s personal lives; this may affect trust later down the line and perhaps even generate claims of unnecessary employer snooping. Ensure policies are up to date on this and employees know how technology is monitoring them and what for
  2. Obtaining support from trusted colleagues within your ICT provider to help verify evidence or provide details as to when employees were using certain software. Discuss with then how confidentially within any investigation will be maintained and can be audited
  3. Obtaining support from experienced external professionals who can provide specialist services, including helping to guide or mentor investigating managers or conduct aspects of the investigation from a truly independent perspective.

Digital sexual harassment is not going away.  Organisations need to quickly recognise the internal learning that even minor incidents offer and quickly translate this into evolving policy, whilst providing regular updates and training to employees and leaders.

Failure to do this will surely result in avoidable grievances and female talent leaving to work for other competitors, with anecdotes of their own to tell. What might they say about your organisation?