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Sexual harassment on the rise as remote work blurs social boundaries

Law firm Royds Withy King has warned of an uptick in sexual harassment at work due to more hybrid working.

The firm is currently handling several cases that include instances of sexual harassment in remote video meetings and workplace chat forums.

A survey of 100 financial services employers by the firm also found that, despite switching to more remote work, just 10 had updated their sexual harassment policies since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.

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Speaking to HR magazine Ruth Cornish, founder and director of HR consultancy Amelore, said in general, she believes employers could be waiting until the new year to formalise any policies and contracts as it may depend on how the company plans to work going forward, and whether the UK goes into another lockdown.

However, she noted: “Keeping a watching brief and updating the people risk register is always advisable.

“Sexual harassment has bust its barriers with the event of remote working becoming established. Employees are forced to invite colleagues into their homes which were once private domains and without clear boundaries work and home hours may merge creating the perfect environment for harassment or bullying.

“It is important for organisations to ensure that any related policies (dignity at work, bullying and harassment, communication, relationships at work, etc.) are reviewed and updated to reflect virtual and remote working.”

Caroline Doran Millett, international partner in the employment law team at Royds Withy King, said it is unacceptable for any member of staff to face daily harassment online.

Although the government has launched a consultation into the issue, she said employers have a duty to do more to protect employees.

Speaking to HR magazine, she commented: “We have seen an increase in cases being brought by female employees experiencing harassment in online meetings and in messenger services across a wide range of industry sectors.

“Employers are leaving themselves hopelessly exposed to claims from staff facing harassment in the workplace – whether in the office or virtually – by relying on outdated policies.”

While noting that financial services culture may not be typical of other workplaces in different sectors, Cornish advised HR directors to be especially cautious of conduct as the festive period approaches.

She added: “A town hall discussion about respecting all our colleagues is a good idea as we head towards party season.”