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‘Be vigilant’

Employers must protect workers from online harassment, says researcher

Research

By Susan White

With many organizations and employees switching to remote work environments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is increased need for employers to be vigilant in protecting employees from cyberbullying and online harassment.

Dr. Dianne Ford, professor of information systems and organizational behaviour at the Faculty of Business Administration, cites two recent examples — a Zoom-bombing incident in which racist and pornographic content was shared during a virtual university event and a viral video that showed an individual using a bathroom while colleagues looked on — as examples of the risks to employees in a digital work environment.

“… when virtual harassment occurs in the home space, the safe buffer is removed and is associated with greater fear of future harassment.”

“With the viral video, it is unclear who shared that video first [but] if it was another participant or colleague and not the individual herself, then that could be considered to be cyberbullying. It is embarrassing and undermines her reputation,” she said.  “The Zoom-bombing incident was disruptive and can also be considered workplace harassment, even if it is done by an insider or outsider of the organization.”

Dianne Ford
Dr. Dianne Ford says stress increases the likelihood of harassment-type behaviours occurring. Just because grief, anxiety and stress are normal responses right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t minimize the importance of getting support.
Photo: David Howells

‘Devastating psychological impacts’

The risks to employee well-being in remote work environments, where the potential for large audiences in the case of viral social media videos and where the harassers may also be anonymous, are not only greater but could have more devastating psychological impacts for victims.

“Home is typically a safe space for employees,” Dr. Ford explained. “However, when virtual harassment occurs in the home space, the safe buffer is removed and is associated with greater fear of future harassment. This has a significant impact on mental and physical health, even with a single, private, harassing email.”

Legal obligations for employers

Dr. Ford says organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador are bound by both human rights and occupational health and safety legislation to protect employees from workplace harassment, bullying and violence, regardless of the physical location or the time of day.

Failure to uphold this legislation can result in fines or even jail time for employers, not to mention the perpetrators. In addition, Bill C-13 makes cyberbullying a criminal act in Canada.

“If the viral video happened in Canada, the posting individual could face criminal charges, could arguably be fired with just cause, and the organization could be held responsible for harassment and bullying,” she said.

To mitigate the risks, all employees should be made aware of acceptable computer usages policies, harassment policies, and procedures to report harassment and bullying.

Organizations should also have collaboration between the IT and HR departments to make sure all relevant policies are updated and aligned to apply in remote work environments.

“Your respectful workplace (discrimination, harassment, bullying and violence) policies, plus your acceptable computer usage policy, should be up front and centre,” said Dr. Ford. “Have them easily accessible online and send out reminders to people about them, as well as the formal and informal procedures for enacting these policies.”

Supporting employees

In addition, employers should regularly promote the use of employee assistance programs.

“Stress increases the likelihood of harassment-type behaviours occurring. Let people know that just because grief, anxiety and stress are normal responses right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t minimize the importance of getting support.”

But the most important factor in mitigating employee workplace stress and harassment is leadership.

“As a leader in the organization, the number one thing you can do is to model respectful behaviour.”

“As a leader in the organization, the number one thing you can do is to model respectful behaviour and work on managing your own stress levels,” said Dr. Ford. “One of the strongest predicators of workplace mistreatment is the leader’s own actions and the importance they place on respectful behaviour.”

For more information on the province’s new occupational health and safety, click here.

Memorial University also offers training opportunities related to creating respectful workplaces through the Gardiner Centre.


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