Modern workplaces: harassment in an online environment

04 May 2021      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

On 19 April 2021, the Office for Students called for urgent action to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct in universities, write #UHR21 partner organisation Pinsent Masons. OfS Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, urged all HE providers to review their policies, systems and procedures before the next academic year. HR should therefore continue to have the issue of harassment at the top of their agenda, for both staff and students.

The recent emphasis on remote working and distance learning means it is more important than ever for universities to be able to show that they have taken all reasonable steps to address the risk of online harassment to both staff and students.

What is harassment?

Harassment is unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Under the Equality Act 2010, unlawful harassment of an employee occurs where it relates to a “protected characteristic” such as sex, age, religion, disability or race. An employer will be liable for acts of harassment carried out by an employee in the course of their employment where they cannot show they took all reasonable steps to prevent it.

There is also an implied term of mutual trust and confidence between employers and employees, assuming they will treat each other with respect and civility and not in a wholly unreasonable manner. Workplace harassment undoubtedly has the potential to breach this implied term and an employee could rely on this as a reason to resign and potentially bring a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

Ways to prevent harassment

Employers should have a harassment policy which makes explicit reference to online harassment and covers matters such as what it is, what behaviour is expected of employees and the possible consequences of breaching it.

Employers should also deal with online harassment in their IT policy and consider a separate social media policy. The relevant policies need to make it clear that an employee's actions outside of work can impact on their employment.

It is important to carry out regular training on policies, and tools such as pop-up reminders to employees that they should use virtual platforms appropriately can help employees to be more aware of their behaviour.

When faced with an allegation of online harassment, managers should refer to their organisation's policy to ascertain the appropriate way to respond to any complaints received and liaise with HR for advice.

One option is to take informal action. This could be done through a quiet word by a manager with the perpetrator and an explanation of the impact of their behaviour. Alternatively, the complainant may wish to go through a formal complaints process, or the seriousness of the complaint may warrant it, in which case an investigation will need to be carried out potentially resulting in disciplinary action. Additional support may be needed for the complainant, for example through an employee assistance programme.

Employers should act swiftly if they become aware of harassment rather than wait for complaints to be made. It is important not to be a bystander but rather to set the rules on, and remind employees of, the appropriate standard of behaviour in the workplace to positively influence workplace culture.

Come and explore topics like this further at our session at #UHR21 on Tuesday 11 May from 3 – 4pm on New modern workplaces – anytime any place, anywhere?



This extract is part of a series looking at online risk in the higher education sector, which includes a look at what disclosures obtained under freedom of information laws tell us about how providers are approaching online safeguarding.

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