Digitally-reliant 2020 has seen a significant shift in work, place and space – and subsequently has led to a blur in conduct norms and standards.

Last month, Jeffrey Toobin – a writer for The New Yorker and political analyst for CNN, was suspended after “unintentionally” exposing and playing with himself while on a Zoom call to his co-workers.

Upon the news breaking, the internet immediately burst into laughter with #zoomdick trending on Twitter. However, this incident is no joke. The truth is that by laughing at Toobin’s actions we’re being dismissive of a serious case of sexual harassment.

How is this sexual harassment?

Touching yourself inappropriately during a work meeting is never acceptable, under any circumstances – this is a sentence I thought I would never need to type!

You wouldn’t tolerate someone touching themselves in front of you at the park, on a bus or in the office, so why should the reaction to Toobin’s conduct behind a computer screen be any different?

Some may argue that Toobin was in the privacy of his own home and perhaps he didn’t mean to leave the camera on. He has, in fact, apologised for his “embarrassingly stupid mistake” but to do what he did while knowingly on a video call with his non-consenting colleagues – whether he meant to turn off the camera and microphone or not – involved intention.

Is this an isolated incident?

It appears Toobin is not alone in his lewd actions.

Nick Emery, chief executive at media company Mindshare, lost his role by exposing his bottom as “a prank” while on a video call. A government official in the Philippines even had sex with his secretary, broadcast unwittingly to his colleagues via Zoom.

In fact, according to a survey of UK workers by EasyOffices, about 10% of people claim to have seen someone partially or completely naked on a video chat since the first lockdown, while 13% have heard or seen someone on the toilet, or have witnessed bodily functions, like farting, during working hours.

Why is this happening?

We can all acknowledge that the sending of sexually explicit images and videos over the internet, especially since the dawn of online dating, isn’t new. But we’re not talking about strangers anymore!

When we swapped the office for the living room at the beginning of lockdown, we started inviting colleagues into our most personal spaces, blurring the line between our private and professional lives. We brought people into the places where we eat, sleep, kick our shoes off at the end of a hard day and relax with our partners.

The social cues that surround us in a work environment – clock-in times, face-to-face meetings, standards of clothing – have, on the whole, disappeared. Some experts say people have simply forgotten where they are. While there is simply no excuse for inappropriate sexual conduct, it goes some way to explain the trend in digital harassment.

However, it’s also important to realise that some people know exactly what they are doing. Working remotely has inadvertently given those who are already targeting men and women in the office, new tech in which to continue their unacceptable behaviour – and now, there are often no witnesses.

How can I prevent this?

Well, if a colleague was caught touching themselves in front of colleagues or turned up to a meeting half naked, you’d hope that any decent company would act strongly and swiftly. The same should apply in this new digital era and here’s how you can do that.

Reiterate your values – From the start, make it clear that your organisation is committed to a harassment-free workplace, whether that’s in the office or at home. Either through team meetings or training sessions, make sure everyone is aware of exactly what does and does not constitute as acceptable behaviour.

Put it down in writing – Zoom and other online meeting rooms represent unchartered territory for many companies who have yet to put policies in place that extend to online conduct. Make sure your sexual harassment policy is updated and is enforced without exception.

Gather opinions – Ask your employees what you could do to make them feel safer when working from home. Their opinions could help formulate the new wording in your sexual harassment policy.

Provide reporting channels – Make reporting harassment safe and easy. Provide accessible avenues, such as a dedicated phone number or an email address to a specially trained manager or person in HR. And ensure you take real action when you receive reports. Dragging your feet will only make it look like you prioritise the company’s image over an employee’s safety.

You can show your commitment to your people’s welfare with an employee hotline for reporting incidents of harassment, bullying and discrimination. Tell Jane offers an anonymous platform, for both victims and witnesses, that connects them to an independent HR advisor. To find out more and see how our hotline could benefit your workplace, contact me at lisa@telljane.co.uk.

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