Discrimination, bullying and harassment unfortunately still persist in workplace environments across the UK, despite legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 outlawing such behaviour against groups with a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Act, such as age, race, sexual orientation or gender.
Sexual harassment in the (virtual) workplace
Sexual harassment during a pandemic
One might have thought that, with the majority of office-based workers at home once again during lockdown 3.0, behaviour such as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment would have significantly diminished without the workplace environment to bring colleagues together.
Alarmingly, however, a recent study showed that a quarter of women who had been experiencing sexual harassment at work prior to lockdown said the behaviour had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Some examples given by the study show how colleagues have simply moved their behaviour online; they include a manager who used a work WhatsApp group to obtain the victim’s personal telephone number, which was then used to harass her privately, as well as colleagues who took screenshots during meetings and shared them and made inappropriate comments.
Virtual harassment is still harassment
Whether the behaviour is perpetrated in person or virtually, it is still sexual harassment and is prohibited under the Equality Act.
The legal risk to the business that could arise from discrimination claims is no less potent than it would be in a physical office environment – perhaps it is even more so due to the increased possibility of covertly recording meetings and exchanges.
And yet, seven in 10 of the women surveyed said their employer wasn’t doing enough to protect them in the virtual workspace, while three in 10 said the pandemic had worsened their employer’s response to sexual harassment.
What do employers need to be doing?
It is very important that employers review and update their code of conduct, anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies to ensure that they also encompass online forms of harassment, bullying and discrimination, and to publicise any updates with employees.
It’s also important to have clear processes for whistleblowing and the reporting of misconduct, and to respond to allegations swiftly and appropriately. Other suggestions for effectively preventing and dealing with sexual harassment include:
- Training and awareness
- Surveys and monitoring of staff experiences and attitudes
- Staff support, e.g. via regular catch ups between managers and their team members to ensure issues are quickly spotted and dealt with.
Remember, just because harassment may be less visible in a virtual environment, with more opportunities for harassers to access victims on a one-to-one basis via video conferencing software and with less threat of supervision, does not mean that it isn’t still happening.
HR departments will need to be extremely vigilant in the identification and addressing of misconduct, and ensure that all employees understand where to go to receive support.
HR professionals for the virtual age
Just as employees have had to adapt to the challenges of remote working, our Employment Lawyers at Woodfines have rapidly adapted to the new legal issues and challenges associated with working in a predominantly virtual environment.
Whether you are an employee who has been subject to online sexual harassment, or an employer looking to adapt your workplace policies or respond rapidly and sensitively to a sexual harassment claim, we can help.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be pleased to help you deal with your issue.
With offices in Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire, Woodfines Solicitors provide a full range of legal services to businesses and individuals.