The world of work has recently welcomed the coming into force of the first international convention aiming to eliminate violence and harassment at the workplace, at a time when a global pandemic redefined the work landscape and changed the norms of interaction between colleagues.
he first international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work came into force on June 25th 2021, two years after it was adopted by the ILO’s International Labor Conference, recognizing the right of everyone to a workplace free from violence and harassment and providing a common framework for action. To date, six countries, including Argentina, Ecuador, Fiji, Namibia, Somalia and Uruguay, have ratified the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190), making its provisions legally binding.
The adoption of the Convention is considered critically important as it is establishing a globally agreed definition of violence and harassment, enabling the business world to know what needs to be done in order to prevent and address it.
Since the adoption of the Convention, the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the issue, with ILO reporting that many forms of work-related violence and harassment continue to be recorded in many countries since the outbreak began, particularly against women and vulnerable groups.
Types of harassment at the workplace
Violence and harassment at work takes a range of forms and leads to physical, psychological, sexual and economic harm. In their traditional form, examples of bullying or harassing behavior include:
- comments about a person’s physical appearance or character which causes embarrassment or stress
- unfair treatment
- spreading malicious rumors
- picking on or regularly undermining someone
- denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities
- sexist/racist/homophobic jokes
- unwelcome sexual advances or repeated requests for dates
- unwelcome attention such as stalking and spying
The COVID-19 landscape
However, bullying and harassment are not only a face-to-face affair, but can also be effective remotely; for instance by email or by phone, a trend particularly highlighted in the years of remote communication and even more through the pandemic.
In the last year, boundaries between work and private life have blurred, bringing colleagues, managers and customers to into the intimacy of our homes. Working out from the safety of their living rooms may allow people to be more informal, intimate or, in some cases, inappropriate. In other words, working from home may have not eliminated, but just moved the harassment online.
For example, sexual harassment in the workplace has taken new forms during the pandemic, as many employees are currently working from home and the upturn in sexual misconduct has been closely linked to increased use of messaging Apps, video platforms, personal devices and a more casual tone that often comes from working from home.
Other examples of online harassment may include cyber stalking, sending inappropriate messages, using unprofessional emojis; colleagues asking and offering to send improper photographs; colleagues taking screenshots during a meeting and sharing them with others; and many more.
Last but not least, the pandemic has stressed with the most successful way a trend of discriminatory behaviors against people who dealt with the virus, meaning that people are labelled, stereotyped, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with the disease or because of their trust/mistrust towards the vaccine. This “social stigma” in the context of health can negatively affect those with the disease, as well as their caregivers, family, friends and communities; not to mention people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus.
What can I do as employee?
The first and simplest step for employees who are facing such situation is to attempt to sort out the problem informally first. If they cannot, they should talk to their manager, HR department or trade union representative. If this does not work, they can make a formal complaint using their employer’s grievance procedure.
What can employers do?
- Undertake a sexual harassment risk assessment to understand the current mitigation strategies and try to assess the level of inclusivity in the organization.
- Ensure regular reporting on harassment complaints: Maintain regular catch ups with employees or undertake some form of regular employee engagement surveying to understand whether people would feel safe to come forward with a complaint.
- Do not neglect equality and diversity training of employees regularly (maybe once a year) to ensure that this remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
- Update company policies to reflect the new working environment post-COVID-19, addressing the new challenges employees might face.
- Be wary of a “customer is always right” mentality in terms of application to unwelcome conduct.
- Ensure that compliance training reaches all levels of the organization, regardless of how geographically dispersed workplaces may be, while also ensuring that workers in isolated work environments understand complaint procedures.
- Do not forget to always apply workplace rules uniformly, regardless of rank or value!