Effective Guide to Handle Digital Harassment in Your Company
A few years ago, IT firm Tech Mahindra sacked its chief diversity officer after an internal investigation found that she had discriminated against and harassed a former employee over his sexual orientation. Such actions are a definitive sign that companies take employee grievances seriously.
Workplace harassment has existed for a long time. It’s everywhere from bullying to outright discrimination. However, in the past decade or two, it has come more to the forefront with exposure and experience, and HR teams have had to devise effective policies to tackle it and protect employee rights.
The types of harassment can range from psychological and verbal, to more serious forms like physical and sexual harassment. However, with more and more offices exploring flexible work options now, technology has a huge role to play in work engagements. And with this, the incidence of harassment, biases and bullying whether over a call or text or video, is only increasing.
Companies need to be vigilant and include clear processes in their workplace harassment policy to handle digital harassment if it hasn’t done so already. Often it’s hard to place. Creating a policy around it means the company is conveying a clear view of its stance on workplace harassment and also ensuring a process to handle any violations of its rules.
What can be classified as digital harassment?
• Inappropriate conduct while texting. While texting is much easier these days and is non-intrusive, it can be misused. It is not easy to read intent through text. Using phrases that may be loaded with meaning, being overfriendly or texting a professional contact at an unreasonable hour or repeatedly texting with follow-ups messages can all constitute as harassment.
• Making personal comments/judgments in group discussions. Sometimes, you may want to single out a team member’s mistake or point it out so others don’t do the same. Personal comments or judgments are a reflection of our deep-seated assumptions. For instance, in today’s WFH scenario saying ‘I’m sure there is a lot of pending household chores’ to a female colleague/s on a group call could be offensive. It is not appropriate on a group call even if you share a friendly rapport with them otherwise. It may lead them to be acutely uncomfortable. Other than verbally, unconsciously including remarks in group email could amount to digital harassment.
• Sending or sharing overtly offensive messages and non-work-related jokes and forwards on a workplace collaboration app like Whatsapp, Slack, or Google Hangouts. It is tempting to send funny forwards to colleagues at times. But it’s a recipe for disaster. These messages could be photos, videos, text, gossip, and lewd messages.
• Deliberately sharing personal information about an employee, which could damage their reputation or make them anxious about their safety. This can be tricky and can happen both online and offline. However, it must be acknowledged and tackled. Maligning or smear campaigns about colleagues with subtle jibes and statements to put them down, deliberately excluding a team member from a conference call or victimising or insulting them in public are types of harassment and if done on an online platform, they amount to digital harassment.
• Harassment through video. Making subtle jokes about employees, in a group conference call, or commenting on someone’s appearance, dressing, or conveying a bias against them can also be included in harassment.
• Using social media apps to send private messages. It is unsafe to get overfamiliar on social media like Facebook and Linkedin, in the name of work. For instance, if you are looking to hire a person, it is not okay to ask about their marital status even if it’s through direct messaging on social media apps like Linkedin or Facebook.
Depending on your business environment and work insights you may have more to add to the list above. The key take away here a simple strategy – first, identify what constitutes digital workplace harassment. Second, tackle it.
What should digital harassment policies include?
Several organisations have formal policies on reporting workplace harassment such as Anti-bullying & Anti-Harassment policy, Grievance Handling policy, Prevention of sexual harassment at workplace (PoSH) policy, Equal Opportunities policy, Social Media policy to name a few. Whether you don’t have either of these or some or all of these, it is good to include a section on digital harassment as well.
• Respect privacy and be professional. Remind employees that, just like in the in-person location, employees should not expect privacy when using any company-owned resources such as laptops or phones, and company accounts.
• Spell out the acceptable behaviour. Include guidelines about the remote work environment on how to successfully navigate a work from home including tips on etiquette about how to engage with employees when everyone is working from home (online). This can be a very natural opportunity to reinforce anti-harassment and inclusion as well. The policy should also indicate what’s acceptable for an employee to put out and what’s not.
• Spell out the consequences of non-compliance. Confirm that your policy addresses unacceptable online behaviour and stress on the consequences of violating it. Also, ensure that confidentialities are maintained for credibility.
• Review your internal complaint process to include digital harassment. To supplement policy, any internal complaint system (a committee or a process to report complaints) should now include digital harassment. It should detail how a disgruntled employee should express their workplace grievances with HR or company leaders first. Employees often don’t know where to turn with their grievances, so they take to social media. This can spiral out of control for both the company and the employees. Unless you have a formal complaint process that acknowledges the victim’s rights to anonymity and security from retaliation, they probably won’t come forward.
The best way to encourage reporting of any misconduct, and tackling it is to show that allegations are treated seriously and resolved promptly. Holding regular training sessions with employees to define what constitutes workplace harassment. When an employee brings an incident to the management’s attention, the policy will enable the organisation to immediately address the issue and conduct a fair and thorough investigation.
What steps should you take if you feel targeted?
In my experience, unfortunately, many companies make the mistake of drafting or upgrading a policy after an incident has escalated. In the interim, employees are left feeling stranded and are unsure of what to do. This employee could be you.
So the next time you face any harassment or are approached by your colleague or team member for guidance, here’s what to do.
• Firstly, try and be direct in your approach and ask them to stop.
• If this doesn’t work, consider escalating the issue to your immediate manager, unless, of course, your manager is the one to blame. Bring the issue to the attention of HR if your attempts to resolve it fail. If you can, provide evidence such as screenshots, texts, messages and eyewitness accounts, it will make the reporting of your case easier to handle.
• While dealing with workplace harassment, you should avoid certain behaviours. Most importantly, avoid reacting aggressively, since it can cause the issue to spiral out of hand.
• Avoid complaining to coworkers. This may backfire on you and make your evidence weaker as well. They may not have the power to help or change the situation.
• The last thing you should do is keep quiet about the harassment and hope it will reduce or go away. You must report the issues via the right channels. It’s also important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t falsely report any harassment. False reporting can lead to strict action, and this can be clearly stated in the policy as well.
Ultimately, all types of workplace harassment affect not only an employee’s productivity, comfort, and safety at work but can also put the organisation in a legal fix. With the way, the world is changing, and professional circles discussing radical new ways of working that include working from home as a more permanent option, online etiquette has become more important than ever.
With a more thorough understanding of digital harassment, your organisation will be better equipped to help an employee’s deal with their bitter experiences.
At Yellow Spark, we can help you update and design inclusive, diverse, and comprehensive workplace policies. To know more write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Profile: Deepam Yogi is an adventurer at heart, socially conscious in her gut and professionally a strategic consultant. She co-founded Yellow Spark to support organisations to build workplaces that people love being a part of. Deepam describes herself as a shy yet opinionated writer and firmly believes that most answers to complex issues lie in simple communication.