As employees head back to work, insults and misconduct ramp up
Those snide insults, inappropriate comments, racist remarks and sexual innuendos that used to make us cringe are rearing their heads again as more people return to the workplace amid a fast-recovering — and seemingly looser — COVID-19 world.
After more than 14 months of working from home with no on-site management to filter or rein in comments or behaviors that could be considered workplace harassment, employees and bosses are facing an adjustment period. In some cases, it’s making for a hostile work environment.
A recent Deloitte survey, for example, says 52% of women have experienced some form of harassment or aggression in the past year. That ranges from a belief their judgment is being questioned because they are women, to disparaging remarks about their physical appearance, communication style or sexual orientation.
Women aren’t the only targets.
Pew Research from 2020 reveals 58% of Asian Americans surveyed said it was “more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.”
Philippe Weiss, president of the legal compliance and management training company Seyfarth at Work, is hearing of multiple complaints as he works with clients across a variety of industries.
He offers his thoughts on the issue, which have been edited for space considerations.
Q: Are some employees unaware that they might be offending coworkers and bosses with their behavior?
A: Yes. While consulting, we hear that many employees are surprised to be once again subject to management oversight or called out on risque conduct. Based on dozens of calls received from organizations, many newly returning employees are clearly unaware they might be offending co-workers and bosses.
Since last April, remote workers have spent much of their in-person time casually engaging with close friends or family – often in a “pod.” Now, suddenly being required to censor themselves for an entire workday – while also subject to live supervision – is all proving a real challenge.
Q: Can you provide some examples of inappropriate things people are hearing in the workplace?
A: In the realm of
insubordination, a newly returned employee at a financial firm, who cherished the ability to independently manage her own schedule during COVID-9, snapped at a manager saying, “Lay off! You’re not the boss of me.” The manager replied, “Yes, actually, I AM the boss of you.”
Insults are also flying. Several staff members at a graphics company set up a spreadsheet ranking other colleagues in terms of who “physically expanded or aged the most, vs. the least during COVID-19.”
In terms of indecency, one employee at a New York marketing firm said this to a coworker: “You don’t mind if I share all the deets on my Friday night date? It’s been a long while since I got busy – and it got wild!”
Q: How are employers addressing these situations?
A: Mostly via less than adequate “spot” interventions. Trying to re-impose what may seem, to some, like distant or even bygone conduct rules after the fact is proving an uphill battle for many organizations.
Businesses that have been successful in achieving smoother, more respectful reintegrations are those that view their returning staff members in some ways as new employees — especially where conduct expectations are concerned. They have been conducting carefully planned interactive reorientation training sessions focused on appropriate interactions. For managers, the sessions focus on successfully leading a hybrid, returning workforce.
The most effective of these reorientation training sessions let participants share reactions and evaluate office reunion-type scenarios where they can distinguish between what one might call “prior/pod” behavior and “professional/place of work” conduct.
Q: Many businesses have indicated they intend to retain a higher level of remote work options than before COVID-19. Do you think these insults and inappropriate comments will prompt them to allow more people to work from home?
A: For the short and mid-term, the reported insults and edgy comments may not prompt employers to automatically allow a significant number of people to work from home. Bosses’ current focus is often on addressing any instances of inappropriate conduct via investigations and possible discipline.
Q: Will this rowdy kind of behavior fuel more workplace lawsuits?
A: Yes. Beyond conduct that offends colleagues and leads to possible hostile work environment claims, we are hearing from dozens of companies that overburdened managers are experiencing their own troubles re-adjusting to live work and the nuances of supervising others in new ways and locations.
As such, sloppy, delayed or inadequate managerial responses to misconduct or employee complaints and concerns are becoming increasingly common. That represents both a moral and legal red flag. A failure to appropriately respond can become a significant liability hazard.
About Philippe Weiss
- Title: President
- Organization: Seyfarth at Work
- Residence: Evanston, Illinois
- Education: University of Michigan Honors College; Boston University School of Law
- Previous jobs: Attorney, compliance-products business founder; university course developer/faculty
Five things to know
- In college (pre-internet era), created and sold movie/theatre memorabilia directory
- New York Times fan, especially of the science section
- Proud of family, plus whoever helped develop the COVID vaccines
- Developed political gaming simulations
- Enjoy Thai, sushi, Perrier, hot sauce, hot dogs and any of my wife’s culinary inventions