How Online Behavior Affects Trust and Safety in the Remote Workplace

As the pandemic lockdown unfolded in March and April of 2020, the way society has utilized the internet has expanded dramatically. Pre-Covid-19, many of us relied upon tools like Zoom and GoToMeeting to meet with clients or work remotely with team members located around the US. Some of us were already seasoned work-from-homers and certainly video communication veterans. But as the world’s entertainment centers such as malls, movie theaters and restaurants shut down and we were asked to stay inside, the internet suddenly became all we had. The remote workplace was, for most of us, the only workplace. Entertainment, creative outlets and social activity came only at the mercy of the internet which has created a strain on public vs private life as well as home vs work life. For some an added and very scary pressure is that home is not always a safe place. Barry Nixon and Nick Fisherman recently discussed the increase in domestic violence in the wake of COVID-19 and the well-established fact that domestic violence is often a precursor to workplace violence.

Now, as summer begins and lockdown restrictions are being eased, some work environments have made or will be making permanent adjustments in providing remote workplace options for some or all employees. As online usage increases, work life and home life have merged, and this fluid new world order has surfaced new risk areas for trust and safety in the semi or permanent remote workplace. The current pressure of COVID-19 and increase of social media activity can indicate to employers when those pressure points are starting to boil over. 

We Internet more now

According to a recent New York Times review of internet usage during the pandemic, there are three main trends happening with the increase of remote work. 1. We have suddenly become reliant on services that allow us to work and learn from home. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams have absolutely skyrocketed in usage since the first known COVID-19 case in the U.S. on February 29th. 2. With the rise of social distancing, we are seeking out ways to connect, mostly through video chat. Previously unknown apps have experienced massive spikes in downloads like Houseparty with 50 million in one month (20 million users pre-COVID) and TikTok had 315 million downloads in Q1 of 2020, which is the best quarter by any app, ever. 3. With well-established apps, we are turning away from our phones and utilizing websites more. Facebook has seen an increase of overall usage (adding almost 6 million more active users in March alone) after months of usage rates decreasing pre-COVID with app usage only growing by 1% while website usage has grown by almost 30%. 

It started ONLINE and ended up in the WORKPLACE or it started in the WORKPLACE and ended up ONLINE 

At Social Intelligence, we hear that line in some variation a lot.  With the increase in online work tools that allow a quick copy-and-paste-to-share, the potential for employees to make offense and take offense has increased along with broader technology usage. While employees may dismiss a message as "just a joke," employers know that employees often disagree about where joking ends and harassment begins. Beyond offensive jokes, this type of activity can be a precursor to downright dangerous behavior and have major implications for HIPPA violations. Some of the challenges employers are facing include virtual harassment, cyberstalking, inappropriate text or instant messages, and sexually explicit or offensive photos or videos sent via electronic media. 

Employees conducting such behavior may not understand that offensive electronic communications affecting the workplace can constitute workplace harassment. Many employees may believe that off-duty conduct outside the workplace is unrelated to an employer’s responsibility to maintain a workplace free of discrimination.

Historical cases highlight these challenges:

In 2012, an employer paid $2.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the EEOC alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. A store manager allegedly sent sexually charged text messages to an employee who reported the harassment to her direct supervisor. The supervisor was fired after he reported the harassment to the company’s legal department.

A court upheld a $1.6 million verdict in favor of an employee with a disability who was harassed by co-workers on a blog outside the workplace. The employee reported the harassment but the employer failed to take effective action. The employer was found liable because it was aware of the harassment and didn’t stop it.

What can employers do to prevent workplace harassment in all its electronic forms?

The truth is, companies don’t need a physical workplace for bullying to become a rampant problem--the tools already exist, whether on work platforms or off-duty on social media sites. While working from home may generally reduce an employees’ stress levels, your remote employees are just as susceptible and just as capable of harassing each other from the comfort of their own homes, creating an even more difficult situation for your HR department to manage.

The good news is that social media screening can help foresee some of this toxic behavior and, like we mentioned earlier, give your hiring manager a clearer picture of your candidate by flagging potentially verbally abusive or threatening behavior. Whether it’s continuing to perform periodic screenings to better inform your understanding of employee health or an initial background screening for new employees in the door, social media screening is an essential tool for assessing brand risk as well as culture fit. As companies move more and more of their operations out of the office and into the cloud, social media screening is fast-becoming a necessary tool for benchmarking (and preventing) toxic behavior in the workplace.

It goes without saying that your in-office employees are still using the same tools and are just as susceptible to toxic behavior. The case still stands that screening is necessary for remote employees due to their high dependency on online communication, but the truth is that every employee, in-office or remote, is capable of toxic behavior, and social media screening remains an excellent tool to gauge how that might crop up at work. Whether they hang around the water cooler or spam your #random channel, all of your employees deserve a standardized treatment, which is why one of our recommended best practices is to perform uniform baseline screening procedures on everyone that enters your workforce.

Online and offline workplace safety is the number one reason companies seek out social media screening. Social Intel provides a brief, informative ebook called The CRA's Guide to Social Media Screening as well as a sample report to help CRA’s understand how they can recommend a solution oriented, compliant online screening program that compliments other types of background checks. mitigate brand risk by taking proactive steps to screen their employees’ and prospective employees’ publicly available online information.