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

Online meetings can be new venue for incivility


Social distancing and the lack of face-to-face interactions with complainants, respondents and primary witnesses is unchartered water in a complex field of investigations, writes Denise Koster. (MoiraM/Adobe Stock)

COVID-19 has transformed the workplace from boardrooms and cubicles to conference calls and virtual platforms.

However, the “new normal” has not in any tangible way eliminated the chronic issue of workplace harassment and bullying.

As managers focus on the creation of virtual work environments and obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees, employers still have a mandated obligation to protect employees from discrimination, harassment and bullying.

Although a frequent “go-to” for rationalizing bad behaviour or workplace rage, the pandemic in no way decreases liability nor will it ever be a valid excuse for a breach of an internal code of conduct or the failure to meet Ministry of Labour Health and Safety standards.

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Incivility continues virtually

I recently conducted a virtual investigation where the complainant alleged they had endured an 18-month history of being victimized by work peers. In a worldwide turn of events resulting in working at home due to the pandemic, the individual felt a sense of relief with the imposed lockdown.

Their hope was that by default, the systematic internal campaign to eliminate them from the workplace would cease.

As the employer began to create policies and procedures to ensure a continuation of services to meet the daily needs of the clients, the alleged harassers ramped up their methods of intimidation and attempts to discredit their target.

Online meetings and daily written communication seemed to be a new venue for incivility.

Disrespectful comments and aggressive body gestures in videoconferences, group chat criticisms and character assassinations, and insulting comments about the complainant’s home décor was more than the complainant could take.

The past dread and fear they only felt at work had now rendered their own home a “no safe zone.”

Due to relentless panic attacks, the complainant finally sought out medical assistance resulting in taking a medical leave of absence from work. The case is currently on hold and will resume if and when the complainant receives medical clearance to either return to work or continue to be involved in the investigation process.

Entering uncharted territory

How human resources and occupational health and safety representatives manage virtual workplaces and gradual safe return-to-work programs is vital.

Equally important as keeping current and abreast of physical requirements and safety measures, employers must be prepared to handle a wave of employee complaints that are just beginning to emerge.

Social distancing and the lack of face-to-face interactions with complainants, respondents and primary witnesses is unchartered water in an already complex field of investigations.

Meeting platforms are not proven to be secure regarding confidentiality, nor are they protected from the sophistication of hackers.

Investigators are now faced with a number of critical questions pertaining to investigation best practices, such as:

  • Can investigation interviews take place when the party is in an unsecure space, such as their private home?
  • Is it possible for a formal investigation process to take place and confidentiality ensured when dogs are barking and children are being home schooled?
  • Can an employer ensure that the rights of unionized workers are honoured in addition to members having fair representation, when virtual platforms are being used?
  • During an interview, can credibility testing and demeanor analysis take place when a computer screen or a telephone line is between the investigator and the interviewee?

Proper investigations important

An unfortunate reality of workplace investigations is that although an internal manager may have specific credentials — such as human resource certification — it does not guarantee they have the skills to conduct an unbiased investigation void of confirmation bias.

In addition, an increasing number of external consultants are also jumping on the bandwagon of investigations, many without the proper training.

A workplace investigation is mandatory to meet standards. However, a negligent investigation without accountability can be devastating, not only to the individuals involved, but also to the liability of the employer.

As employers struggle to stay ahead of the curve and ensure legislation is adhered to when complaints are filed, external qualified investigators should be sought out.

Not only can they relieve the burden on management to take on a critical process, they can also make a positive contribution and enhance the quality of professionalism within the work environment.

Denise Koster is a workplace violence and elder-abuse specialist in Toronto and the author of Refusing to Accept the Unacceptable: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of Workplace Bullying and Harassment.

Managers are your best front line in stopping harassment