Harassment at (Remote) Work

Two new surveys indicate workplace harassment rose during the pandemic. Will it increase even more as people return to the office? 

If there was one hope when millions of workers were forced out of their offices last year, it was that bullying, unwanted advances, racial taunts, and all the other forms of harassment coworkers can inflict on their colleagues would, at least for a time, diminish.

They didn’t.

Two recent surveys report that workers from a variety of industries say they’ve experienced increases in age-, race-, and gender-based harassment since the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns in the United States last spring. Indeed, remote work may have unintentionally made it easier to exhibit uncouth behavior.

One-quarter of workers said they have experienced an increase in gender-based harassment, according to a survey by The Purple Campaign, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit dedicated to ending workplace harassment. Project Include, a technology-industry nonprofit, reported similar figures in their own survey, along with increased instances of both race- and age-based harassment.

The statistics suggest that company leaders may need to focus more on harassment issues as millions of workers begin to return to the workplace. “We’re all relearning how to behave together civilly,” says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. Employees will need to feel safe if leaders want them to return to the office, she says.

Prior to the pandemic, many companies had been making significant pushes to root out unseemly behavior, particularly among bosses. The #MeToo movement cast a harsh light on how some male bosses systematically harassed colleagues. Their efforts, however, may have taken a back seat to the myriad challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Experts believe that remote work conditions may have contributed to the problems. Some cite the increase in one-on-one communications in isolation, where no one can hear your conversations over Zoom, text, or phone. With the line between work and home blurred, employees might also have shed their sense of professionalism. Remote work also disrupted normal reporting and support systems, making it more difficult to talk with a manager or human resources about what’s happening and ask for support. For her part, Orr says employees at all levels have been asked to process so many demands during the last 15 months that our brains are experiencing cognitive overload, which can lead to poor decision-making or recklessness.

Reacquainting office workers with office norms is one the many issues of transitioning back to the workplace. While most companies likely are thinking about the health-related issues around the return to the office, not enough organizations are thinking about how to keep workers safe from harassment when they return to the office, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “People have been cooped up and are ready to party, so companies should expect that once everyone is back in the office, there will be interoffice dating, lots of happy hours, and drinking,” he says. “This could grow out of control if companies don’t get a hold of it now.”

As part of the transition back into the office, companies should restate their values and remind employees what they should and shouldn’t do at the workplace, says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. Those expectations should be communicated in series of Zoom meetings rather than in an email that could be easy to overlook.

It may have to go beyond refresher courses, too. There is a large group of young professionals who graduated college and have been working from home for a year and half without ever being in a professional office environment before, Kaplan notes. They’ll need to be taught what’s appropriate workplace behavior. At the same time, many senior-level employees were hired during the pandemic but haven’t set foot in their new offices or met their new coworkers. “Some of the best people on Zoom are horrible face-to-face,” says David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.