Digital Discrimination: the next unwanted challenge for internal communicators?

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In a recent article we published, we took a look at the behaviour science behind keeping people motivated whilst working remotely. We know geographically dispersed teams require more investment for internal communications professionals to help ensure they feel connected to the business, but what happens if this shift results in an unwelcome challenge in digital workplace discrimination? We invited Tori Reichman, VP Customer Success at Vault Platform at workplace misconduct reporting and resolution tool, to tell us more.  

In times of crisis, internal communications teams have never been more essential or more stretched. Uncertainty erodes trust and the only way to address this is through clear communication, which is easier said than done when your business is rapidly implementing a company-wide working-from-home strategy. 

With large swathes of the global workforce moving to a work-from-home model, the next challenge will be communicating and managing a new workplace etiquette. Failing to do so, could result in an unwanted shift in digital workplace discrimination.  

To give this some context, in mid-March 2020 law firm Lewis Silkin LLP estimated that around 88% of large enterprises are asking employees to work from home. A study released by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI) around the same time found that almost one-third of businesses expect bad behaviour to increase as a result of changing work practices due to Coronavirus.  

Workers are already heavily reliant on messaging apps such as Slack and Whatsapp and more still engage with each other on social media both professionally and personally. Blurring the boundary between working hours and personal time can take a negative turn.  

2018 survey by Totaljobs found 30% of UK respondents felt they had been victims of workplace discrimination on internal messaging platforms and 30% of those who do experience cyberbullying, harassment, or discrimination suffer in silence because they are not confident they will be supported by their employer. Around 8% even see leaving their job as their best option. 

 Notable high-profile cases such as the CEO of leading consumer brand Away stepping down after an exposé of bullying culture over Slack highlights the impact of this particular type of workplace toxicity. Coupled with reports of a marked increase in COVID-19 related racial discrimination in the workplace, authorities have been issuing guidance on how organisations should be tackling the issue. ACAS recently sent a reminder: “Employers must not single anyone out. For example, they must not treat an employee differently because of their race or ethnicity.” 

For those experiencing concerns, a related issue in this situation is isolation and its effects on an individual’s mental health. Isolation affects performance, relationships with colleagues, and the company. UK studies have indicated businesses lose hundreds of millions of pounds every year due to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety and during a time of social distancing. Furthermore isolation can quickly have a negative impact on workers, their performance, and how they show up for one another; exacerbating feelings of being “out of sight, out of mind” and increase miscommunications as email and Slack messages are easily misinterpreted without the visual cues we rely on in person.  

Just as with any other form of interaction, employees should be encouraged to speak up and flag hostile behaviour experienced digitally as not acceptable in the workplace. Employees that witness discrimination, even if they didn’t experience it themselves, such as in a Slack channel or chat group should also be encouraged to record details of the incident, including date, time and location. 

Sara Dittrich, an HR Manager at Sheraton Hotels and Resorts, has placed an explicit emphasis on communication across her team during this time of separation and has implemented regular touchpoints throughout the week with their newly remote workforce. Dittrich says, “Misconduct is, more than likely, not going to be reported because HR is not accessible.” Her team counteracts this by ensuring policies, including their non-retaliation policy, are evident even when employees are at a distance. By creatively sharing their procedures for reporting through weekly newsletters and one-on-one check-ins, she’s confident that they can retain the open and trusting environment they’ve built in person. 

 Below we share how your organisation can go about tackling the growing issue of discrimination and bullying across internal communication channels: 

  • 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).  
  • 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. Some of our customers have implemented our COVID-19 reporting category to encourage employees to share their concerns specifically related to the virus, in addition to offering standard categories such as bullying, harassment, and discrimination.  
  • 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. The implementation of an effective reporting tool helps enterprises meet this requirement by offering employees a solution for reporting sensitive issues that take place in person or digitally. 

Vault Platform recently completed a hackathon adding a COVID-19 reporting feature to its enterprise mobile app. This helps HR teams managing the crisis stay on top of the numbers by enabling employees to report directly via the app when showing symptoms or testing for COVID-19.