Is on-line sexual harassment possible? With our work environments currently shifted from the workplace into our personal home environments in response to COVID-19, have concerns regarding sexual harassment in the workplace gradually disappeared? According to Hannington [i] and Norris’ [ii] on-line articles, COVID has not “killed” the prevalence of sexual harassment; rather, the behaviours have correspondingly moved to on-line activities.
Norris [iii] provides an example where a female employee experienced uncomfortable dialogue from their respective director following the change to working from home due to COVID. The male director requested one-to-one video calls which included comments about her personal life and appearance. This same employee also began receiving unsolicited pictures and personal messages from another male senior staff member who suggested she “join his bubble” as “he lives very close by.” [iv]
A similar article described a situation where a female employee received “flirtatious” twitter communications from a prospective high profile male employer which culminated in his offering to send her a picture of himself naked. When she rejected his advances, future work opportunities were halted. This employee described how this awkward communication began to make her feel trapped in her own home which ultimately led to her experiencing severe panic attacks.[v]
As further outlined in Hannington and Norris’ articles, on-line sexual harassment can have a greater deleterious impact on its’ victims than in-person harassment for several reasons. First, COVID has created a new predicament whereby many workers are isolated and often have no alternative other than to interact with their colleagues on-line. Since the victim is typically located in their home residence, the harassment can ultimately cause the victim to feel unsafe in an environment that was typically their personal/ family safe-haven. Secondly, due to the absence of physical threat, there is a perception that such an incident will be taken less seriously if reported to management. Of most significance, greater on-line presence can increase the risk that a superior can more easily obtain personal information about colleagues, such as their home address/ phone number, which could potentially be used to stalk or further harass an individual.
To help address such potential scenarios, there are a variety of steps that ALL employees can take to protect themselves from on-line harassment. Recommendations from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety include:
· Making it clear to the harasser that you do not appreciate their behaviour;
· Keeping a log of all harassing activity and any evidence such as emails, texts, social media messaging, recordings of on-line meetings;
· Reporting the incident to HR and/or management;
· Having a gender neutral email address;
· Having a separate email address for business and for personal usage; and
· Working with your internet service provider to ensure maximum security settings.
It is fully recognized that experiencing harassment (of any type) can result in employees suffering from stress, anxiety, insomnia and other mental health issues which can lead to a decrease in productivity, job satisfaction and ultimately have a negative impact on the overall functioning of an organization. All employers can be held liable for sexual harassment involving its’ employees even if it does not happen in the physical workplace, provided that there is a nexus between the individuals involved and the workplace. It is therefore advisable: to include a prohibition/ policy of on-line harassment (all types) in your workplace; to have a clear mechanism for reporting such behaviour; and to take all complaints seriously.
The Legal Clinic is currently partaking in a public legal education and information (PLEI) project that is sponsored by the Department of Justice (Canada) – the goal of which is to provide information to employers and employees about sexual harassment in the workplace (SHIW). As part of this project, the Legal Clinic is currently offering free workshops for employees and employers about how to prevent and properly handle incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.
[i] Scarlet Hannington, Yes, You Can Get Sexually Harassed While Working at Home Too, Vice: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7gxxy/sexual-harassment-working-from-home
[ii] Sian Norris, “COVID-19 hasn’t killed sexual harassment at work – it’s just moved online”, online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/covid19-sexual-harassment-work-online/