Employers are legally responsible for all online employee behaviour

Advice
February 12, 2021
Employers are legally responsible for all online employee behaviour

Research analyzing 106 legal disputes at the University of Copenhagen shows an increase in responsibility for organizations relating to online chat technology.

When COVID caused most workplaces to move online, one can assume that these predictions were exacerbated tenfold. This article will provide a summary of their findings, as well as an updated statement from Pernille Bjørn, one of the lead researchers.

It’s no news that technology is playing an increasingly large role in workplace harassment. The academic article Online Harassment inthe Workplace: The Role of Technology in Labour Law Disputes, analyzed 106 official legal verdicts on labor law violations. One of the common misconceptions I hear from HR managers is that with remote workforces comes the reduction of workplace harassment sincein-person communication is limited. This is a dangerous misunderstanding.

Workplace chat over is different from social media, as hierarchal structures make it harder to report managers

Chat technologies are becoming a widely used platform for workplace harassment to occur online, which is unique in that it extendsbeyond the workplace and into private life. Communicating over apps are becoming more popular in the workplace with the use ofSkype, Viber, Slack, and WhatsApp. Harassment that occurs over these platforms is different from online harassment within socialmedia sites because it occurs in organizations that are hierarchical in structure and therefore there is more risk to speak out against aharasser. It is vital that we notice the invisible consequences along with this new infrastructure.

However, this type of harassment has a silver lining as it also captures the harassment and documents it in a way that can make it easyfor victims to hold perpetrators accountable. It’s important, however, that victims feel comfortable to bring evidence forward.Otherwise, the same evidence will hold significant weight in a courtroom. In this way, this emerging form of harassment also extendsthe ethical and legal responsibility of the employer.

Companies are legally responsible for employee behaviour conducted over chat tech at all times

Bjørn argues that we need to “consider how the design of co-operative technologies can help survivors speak up, as well as inhibitviolators’ abusive behaviour. We also propose that design strategies must consider employers’ extended responsibility for moral andethical conduct.”

Although harassment is extending into the personal sphere, this harassment is still the legal responsibility of the employer. This legalresponsibility covers every time and place that harassment takes place.

There is a growing trend that is holding employers legally liable for remarks that are defamatory said by employees - including whenthey are said outside of the workplace and even work hours. This is part of another growing trend which is blurring the lines betweenprivate and professional time, which is encouraged by take-home laptops and smartphones. This analysis of various legal casesregarding workplace harassment documented via a type of workplace chat showed that the documented evidence of workplaceharassment almost always made it more difficult for the employer/defendant to argue their case that it wasn’t workplace harassment that took place.

How is harassment defined?

So what is harassment and how can it be classified? “In 1976, American psychiatrist Carroll Brodsky, one of the first people to raise theissue of workplace harassment, emphasized that harassment is characterized by repeated and persistent attempts by one person towear down and frustrate another person.” It negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of victims, while causing severe challengesfor the efficiency of organizations.

In Conclusion

In her academic assessment of how organizations need to view harassment or potential harassment in their workplace, Bjørn states that:

“Employers have become responsible for employees’ behaviour everywhere and all the time.”

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