Workplace Harassment Goes Virtual During COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, several areas of law have seen notable changes, due to the fact that people have largely been staying at home for the past nine months. For example, family lawyers have noted an increase in separations and divorces, with many couples and families confined to close quarters. In addition, some crimes lessened, including assault and property crimes. This can likely be attributed to fewer social gatherings and the fact that homes are less commonly left empty these days.

On the employment side, there has been an interesting, and perhaps unexpected, change in workplace harassment claims. With workplaces across Ontario largely shifting to remote status across the province for the past nine months, one might have expected harassment to decrease significantly since coworkers are not interacting face-to-face like they used to. But in fact, some HR professionals have found that claims have actually increased this year.

In-Person and Online Workplace Harassment on the Rise

A recent article in The Walrus highlighted the fact that many professionals are reporting an increase in workplace harassment claims. These claims continue to stem from interactions happening in the physical workplace for those who are deemed essential and therefore still attending work in person. However, there is also a significant jump in the number of online harassment claims, given that most workplace communication has shifted from the boardroom or office lunchroom to online tools such as Zoom, Slack, and email.

One software developer in the United States noted that the online workplace has become more combative than the previous in-person environment due to a number of factors. Employees are often more overworked than they once were, given our inability to ‘leave’ work behind for the day. Now that many people are operating out of their homes, there is less structure and division each day, and as a result, people are often working more. In addition, a number of companies have been forced to cut back on staff in the past year, requiring those who are still employed to pick up the slack created by those absences.

With more work often being done by fewer people, there is a greater sense of urgency that sometimes results in a lack of proper recognition, as well as a more demanding culture. All of these factors are contributing to increased worker burnout and a more hostile work environment overall. A professor of management at Villanova University said that “[s]imply being drained and stressed or feeling depleted are strong predictors of aggressive behaviour”.

The online environment allows for new channels to bring negativity into the workplace. Zoom and Slack meetings mean coworkers are often texting or messaging one another in side conversations, perhaps expressing negative feelings about colleagues or the workplace overall. This can reduce morale and increase paranoia among staff.

Remote Work and Uncertain Employment May Mean a Decrease in Reporting

Not only is abusive or harassing behaviour increasing online, the current climate means that many employees may opt not to report the problems their facing. According to Tracy Porteous, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of BC, remote working “increases a worker’s vulnerability to sexual harassment and can decrease the chances of reporting”. While the work from home environment has many benefits, such as cutting the need to commute and saving employees time and expense on travel, food and clothing, employees are also feeling more isolated and vulnerable than ever before.

Experts say that employers should proactively work to address the situation to reduce the negative effects of working remotely on their staff. Actions should include openly encouraging employees to report incidences of abuse, harassment or other aggressive behaviours, and then take those reports seriously. Each claim should be properly investigated and dealt with accordingly. Before the pandemic started, the Ontario and federal governments addressed workplace harassment by creating additional responsibilities for employers to manage these types of situations. In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Saftey Act puts an onus on employers to develop and communicate a comprehensive harassment and violence policy, and follow through on the mandates within.

Contact GLG LLP in Toronto for Advice on Employment Litigation Matters

Contact GLG LLP in downtown Toronto for assistance with any employment litigation matter, including claims relating to harassment or violence in the workplace. The firm’s litigation lawyers represent both employees and employers in a range of employment issues. Call the firm at 416-272-7557 or contact them online to schedule a confidential consultation.