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Sexual Harassment Remains a Workplace Menace Even While Working From Home

The Covid-19 shutdown’s explosion of unemployment in several sectors is straining the economy. 

What do we already know or can we expect the impact will be on sexual harassment and misconduct? Will it rise or fall? Where should we be on the lookout to prevent it from arising? The key forces having an impact are:

The dramatic rise in unemployment to 30+ million people would typically cause an overall decrease in reports of sexual misconduct, particularly among low wage workers who have been disproportionately affected.

Women who are still employed are affected by the sharp rise in unemployment. They may be afraid to report misconduct out of fear of retaliation or loss of their own jobs. A significant downturn of the economy also discourages reporting.

Aside from the unemployment, the increase in remote work also suggests that physical sexual misconduct will decrease.

Still, the #MeToo Movement has proven that serial perpetrators have impulse control problems. They are unlikely to simply stop their behaviors because of impediments or even the threat of consequences. Under normal circumstances, predators seek to isolate their victims to undermine their confidence that they will be believed. One-on-one video chats are likely fertile ground for misconduct.

As well, misconduct is easier to commit when the environment is more casual and under less scrutiny, features of working from home.

Thus, despite the expectation for a decrease in total sexual misconduct during this period, the intense pressure in healthcare and rapid hiring and onboarding of employees in industries like shipping and delivery, online learning, grocery stores, and remote networking companies, suggests opportunities will be ripe for misconduct. 

One-on-one interviews that attempt to coerce the interviewee have proven to be popular with predators. Hiring employees without a thorough investigation of their background almost guarantees perpetrators will infiltrate an organization. Rapid hiring without a thorough introduction to the organization’s code of conduct and culture opens the door to misconduct.

In early April, NAVEXGlobal, which handles misconduct reporting for most of the Fortune 500, announced it was releasing benchmark data for misconduct reporting during 2019: “… analysis showed that 31% of reporters speak up in nine days or less after an incident has occurred, but a surprising 20% of reports came in 60 days or more after the incident occurred.” 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has acknowledged as much. On March 21, the EEOC stopped closing investigations, which effectively extended the amount of time to file lawsuits. When an investigation is closed, the EEOC may issue a “right-to-sue letter” to the worker, who then has 90 days to file a suit. By keeping the investigations open, workers have more time to pursue their claims.

 What these changes mean for employers 

Just because total reports of misconduct are down does not mean this is a time to ease up on conduct policies. If anything, this is a time to consolidate and introduce policies that reassure employees that a respectful culture is as important as ever. Organizations should restate policies about professional behavior at remote sites, in work meetings, and with customers, wherever they are held.

What is professional behavior and dress when working remotely?  Organizations need clear policies about under what circumstances employees may use recording in one-on-one meetings to protect themselves and to ensure that company policies are being upheld. Leadership should urge that misconduct be reported and promote the organization’s channels that safely enable misconduct reporting. Executives can seize the opportunity to lead from the top with pronouncements that reassure employees harassment will not be tolerated.

During this period, overall sexual misconduct may decreases, yet it’s going to increase in places. Don’t let those be yours.