Harassment in the (Virtual) Workplace
Responsibility to build respectful and harassment-free workplaces remains key regardless of a physical or virtual work environment.
Companies are increasingly adopting a zero-tolerance stance towards workplace harassment, recognising that it is their duty to provide a safe and conducive work environment that allows individuals to bring their whole selves to work and carry out their work productively.
Workplaces that allow disrespectful and unprofessional behaviours to persist will affect the morale and productivity of the organisation and risk damaging its reputation.
Building a respectful and harassment-free workplace is a shared responsibility of employers and individuals in the workplace.
In this article, we will explore how this responsibility remains key regardless of a physical or virtual work environment.
What is workplace harassment?
Workplace harassment can occur when one party at the workplace demonstrates behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another party. Such behaviour can violate a person's dignity or create an unfavourable work environment for him/her, which poses a risk to the person's safety and health1.
Harassment can occur in various forms. In some instances, it may involve touching or other physical contact, but it can also be non-physical in nature. For example, verbal harassment using threats, abusive or insulting language and making gestures can be considered harassment.
Victims of harassment need not be directly subjected to harassment — if they indirectly experience an uncomfortable or hostile working environment such as overhearing a co-worker making sexist or inappropriate comments directed at another person and feel distressed, they can report this behaviour.
Workplace harassment is also not confined to the office. It can happen during business trips, at a client's office and through online platforms, and can take place during or outside of working hours. As working virtually becomes the norm, disrespectful and unprofessional behaviours which happen at the physical workplace can also happen in a virtual setting.
Videos calls or messages on online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Skype can be just as inappropriate or toxic if co-workers continue to be verbally abusive and disrespectful.
While we often associate cyberbullying (i.e. bullying that takes place online) with children and teenagers, it can happen to any one of us at the workplace. It includes sending offensive messages, circulating degrading images of others and spreading rumours. This can happen through emails and work-related group chats on social media platforms (e.g. WhatsApp) that were originally created to facilitate work communication with remote teams. If these chats are not managed properly, they can act as virtual meeting points for gossiping and sharing of inappropriate content.
Doxxing, a form of cyberbullying, can happen too when an individual publishes someone’s personal information with the intention to harass them (e.g. posting a co-worker’s or client’s photo, contact and employment details accompanied by denigrative and lewd captions).
Another form of harassment that can happen in a virtual setting is cyberstalking. Individuals being stalked online may receive repeated nuisance emails, calls or text messages from a co-worker, and this can extend to social media platforms when a co-worker adds you as a friend (e.g. on Facebook) and follows every post you make and leaves inappropriate comments.
How can we be accountable for our behaviour and avoid being disrespectful?
More often than not, we do not have the intention to harm others with our behaviours. However, as unique individuals, we interpret things differently from one another and may unintentionally offend others with our comments or actions. A joke or a remark that one finds humorous or harmless can be offensive and humiliating to others, and all of us should be more conscious of the tolerance or acceptability of our remarks by co-workers.
To be more mindful of one’s behaviour and avoid any unintended disrespectful behaviours, you could practise perspective-taking by asking the following questions:
- How would others perceive my words and actions?
- How would I feel if I were at the receiving end of this behaviour?
- Would I use the same words or carry out the same act on my loved ones?
- Would I want my loved ones to be subject to the same behaviour?
This helps to guide our behaviours and prevent any potential misunderstanding and unhappiness that can happen.
The transition to working from home has also led to a blurring of professional and personal lives. Individuals working from home should demonstrate the same level of professionalism as you would in the office. To avoid potentially awkward or inappropriate moments and prevent any misunderstandings, practise good video call etiquette such as wearing work-appropriate clothing and ensuring that the background is appropriate and uncluttered when conducting a video call.
What employers and HR can do to prevent workplace harassment
Employers and HR professionals among us can do our part to provide a safe and conducive work environment by:
- Implementing and enforcing an anti-harassment policy to provide employees with information and procedures on preventing and handling workplace harassment. As work-from-home and remote teams become prevalent, ensure your policies cover conduct beyond the physical workplace and include digital channels as well.
- Fostering a safe and conducive organisational culture that enables building a respectful and harassment-free workplace. Consider the following:
- Does your organisation culture condone sexist jokes and remarks?
- Is the management using degrading words to describe employees?
- Training leaders to be more self-aware and communicate appropriately in different scenarios, so they can model desired behaviours and call out any unprofessional conduct. For example, instead of yelling or making disparaging remarks at employees with sub-par performance, train managers to better communicate their expectations and coach employees to meet these expectations.
- Providing opportunities for employees to increase understanding and interaction with each other. Poor workplace relationships could be a risk factor for negative behaviours such as bullying or cyberbullying and the lack of understanding among a diverse group of employees could also lead to misunderstanding and perceived harassment.
What to do if you are being harassed
A common misconception is that harassers will lose interest if they are being ignored. If harassment is not addressed, perpetrators can become more persistent, leading to worse behaviours or escalate their behaviour with more co-workers over time.
Whether harassment happens in a physical or virtual workplace, as an employee or self-employed individual working for your client, seek help immediately by reporting the incident to your supervisor, HR personnel or someone in the management team, so that they can intervene promptly to safeguard your safety and well-being. If external parties are preferred, you could:
- File a report with Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) or contact the TAFEP Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre at 6838 0969 for advice on possible actions that you can take.
- Make a police report for possible violations under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Anyone who faces harassment can report the harasser and will be protected by the POHA which provides a range of civil remedies and criminal sanctions for the victim.
Here are some tips for you to protect yourself and stay away from potential harassment situations:
- Be familiar with workplace harassment-related procedures in your organisation and report potential cases to your management immediately.
- Show confidence in your body language so you do not appear vulnerable.
- Keep a distance from individuals who display unacceptable behaviours. If this is not possible, for instance, in the virtual workplace as you are unable to simply ‘walk away’, you could:
- Tell the harasser assertively to stop his or her unreasonable or unprofessional behaviour.
- Warn the harasser that you will report the incident to a higher authority or to the management.
- Disengage the call or leave the chat if the harasser continues with his or her disrespectful behaviours.
- Adopt a buddy system and avoid having one-to-one conversations with the harasser.
- Document and keep a recording of evidence (e.g. screenshots of messages, emails or audio recordings).
What to do if you witness workplace harassment
Without compromising your safety, you could try to stop it by calling out the undesirable behaviour, and alerting and seeking help from management or security personnel.
Everyone in the workplace has a role to play in building a safe and conducive work environment. If you are experiencing or know of anyone experiencing harassment at the workplace, contact the TAFEP Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre and talk to us. If you need additional resources on workplace harassment, visit tafep.sg.
Note: If you were dismissed or terminated due to the harassment or your reporting of harassment to the management or authority, you can make an appeal to the Ministry of Manpower and file a wrongful dismissal claim at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management.
1 Ministry of Manpower. Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment. 2015, December 8. Available at: https://www.mom.gov.sg/-/media/mom/documents/employment-practices/guidelines/tripartite-advisory-on-managing-workplace-harassment.pdf