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Handling harassment and cyberbullying during remote work

Understanding employers’ obligations to remote workers


Employers' duty to protect their workers extends to remote-work arrangements.  (MoiraM/Adobe Stock)

With many people working from home, virtual harassment and cyberbullying are growing concerns for workers — particularly women.

A recent article by The Walrus highlighted that there are increasing reports of harassment cases among remote workers.

This is a worrying trend, according to Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory team lead at Peninsula Canada in Toronto.

“It means that employers are failing in their duty to provide a safe environment for their workers, and this could lead to severe consequences such as fines, lawsuits and reputational damage for their businesses,” he said.

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According to provincial occupational health and safety legislation, employers have a duty to protect workers, including protection from workplace harassment and violence. The obligation to protect workers also extends to remote-work arrangements.

How might harassment occur in a remote work environment?

Now that many employees are working remotely, virtual harassment and cyberbullying are even harder to detect, said Shukullari.

“Harassment via emails and messaging leaves a paper trail, making it easier to document and address,” he said. “However, when it happens during calls or video conference it is a lot harder to get evidence. Virtual harassment can make remote workers feel even more isolated, particularly if the perpetrator is a superior and they do not know who else to reach out to.”

Workplace harassment remains, even as COVID-19 shapes ‘new normal’

The importance of good communication: To prevent virtual harassment and cyberbullying, management should be regularly checking in with staff and maintaining an open-door policy.

Initiating a conversation about mental health and safety when working from home can make workers feel more comfortable coming forward with any issues they might be having.

Having systems for reporting harassment: “Employers should also have a clear system for how remote workers can immediately seek assistance and report harassment and cyberbullying.

Workers should know how to raise concerns, who to speak to and what to do if the harassment is coming from management,” advised Shukullari.

Using workplace policies to prevent and address harassment: Workers should be clear on how workplace policies on harassment continue to apply during remote work.

Employers should also remind staff of workplace policies on harassment and bullying, the consequences of failing to abide by them and that harassment will not be tolerated.

Investigating incidents: If a remote worker does come forward with a complaint, employers must follow the investigating procedures outlined in their provincial occupational health and safety legislation.

Generally, employers would have to conduct an investigation, notify the worker who has been harassed and their alleged harasser of the investigation’s findings in writing, and notify them of what actions will be taken to resolve the issue.

If the employer is required to have a workplace violence and harassment program, they must review it at least annually.

Kristina Vassilieva is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.