Hidden Truths of COVID-19: Digital Discrimination

With millions of people migrating from working on-site to working from home, the resulting culture shift has given rise to a wave of aggressive and discriminatory behaviour in the digital workplace.

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread there has been a worrying rise in harassment, bullying, and discrimination in the workplace. Initially, this was seen to be race-related – targeting people of Asian origin – but has since spread to include people who expressed symptoms of the virus. Now as large swathes of the global workforce move to a working from home model, employers are faced with a new challenge – that the vector for workplace discrimination will shift in parallel with the main mode of communication. Neta Meidav, co-founder & CEO of Vault Platform, explores this phenomenon below.

Tasked not only with rapidly implementing a company-wide working from home strategy to keep businesses that are still operational up and running, many HR functions are also operationally responsible for mass layoffs all while building a crisis information and communication plan out. Bluntly, HR teams are maxed out and will struggle to field a rising number of queries about the new workplace etiquette.

Law firm Lewis Silkin LLP estimates that around 59% of large multinational enterprises have already put into place a plan to respond to pandemic diseases such as Coronavirus. Typical measures include social distancing and remote working arrangements. The majority (88%) of are managing self-isolation by asking employees to work from home.

It’s difficult to actually get a handle on the number of people whose jobs allow them to work fully remotely, especially with such an unprecedented situation. But cloud security services firm Netskope, which routes corporate traffic for hundreds of thousands of office workers said it estimates that the number of American knowledge workers (white collar desk workers) logging in from home hit a high of 58% on March 19. This is up from an average of 27% over the last six months.

While there may be some anecdotal evidence that the untested shift to an emergency working form model is in fact working, it is early days and there is plenty of research that points to warnings we should all be heeding.

Bluntly, HR teams are maxed out and will struggle to field a rising number of queries about the new workplace etiquette.

A 2017 study by David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny for leadership training consultancy VitalSmarts found that just over half of people who work mostly remotely feel they don’t get treated equally by their colleagues. Now the obvious retort is that ‘we’re all remote workers now,’ so the playing field is levelled. But research suggests the problem is more with the medium than whether workers fall into the ‘in office’ or ‘WFH’ camps.

Some 30% of UK respondents to a survey by Totaljobs in 2018 said they had been victims of workplace discrimination on official corporate messaging platforms, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat. In the US, a 2019 survey by Monster.com revealed that 39% of respondents had received aggressive messages from colleagues on similar tools.

Cyber-bullying has been well documented for some time and remains as persistent in the corporate workplace as it does in schools and colleges. A recent high-profile case focuses on the departure of the CEO of leading consumer brand Away after an exposé of bullying culture over Slack.

The revelations of Away are an anomaly – most incidents go unreported. The same studies show that 30% of workers in the UK (according to Totaljobs) and 34% in the US (according to Monster.com) who do experience cyberbullying suffer in silence because they are not confident they will be supported by their employer. Lloyds of London was exposed in December last year after their complaint hotlines were proved to be inoperative for 16 months due to unpaid phone bills, and in 2018 the Financial Conduct Authority put senior managers on notice that their futures in the City were at risk if they did not take diversity seriously, while companies faced fines after a 220% increase in interpersonal whistleblowing complaints over the previous 12 months. According to Totaljobs, around 8% find it easier to leave their jobs than to complain and request an investigation into the situation.

Digital workers are disincentivised from reporting workplace misconduct in the same way as employees that spend all their time in the physical presence of their colleagues. Firstly, the available channels for reporting misconduct are intimidating; and secondly, they don’t feel confident their employer will act on the report.

But the fact remains that employers are legally obliged to protect their workers and that responsibility doesn’t change because they are now out of sight. While ethically, employers should take more care during these uncertain times.

  • Remind your employees of your organisation’s discrimination and harassment policies and ensure that these are adapted for a remote-first culture (i.e. how they apply to discrimination across messaging apps) and are easily available.
  • Encourage a speak up culture: stigmatising issues (such as with race-related discrimination due to COVID-19) can be challenging for employees to report. Without effective reporting tools in place, many will suffer in silence.
  • Take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment : Typically, employers will only avoid liability in the event of a discrimination case if they can show they have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to protect employees, such as implementing an effective and secure solution for reporting sensitive issues that take place in person or digitally.

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