According to a law firm, female employees are facing increasing levels of sexual harassment in online meetings and in online messaging services daily.

New research from law firm Royds Withy King warns that employers must update their policies in light of increasing levels of sexual harassment, caused by a shift to remote working.

The study found that the rise of working remotely has seen a corresponding increase in female staff receiving sexist comments about their appearance on online meetings.

Comments have included references to wearing more make-up or wearing more revealing clothing, and increased concerns about sexist and offensive jokes being circulated in team message groups.

Previous research also indicated that around a quarter of women who had faced sexual harassment reported this had increased or escalated since the beginning of the pandemic whilst working at home.

However, the law firm states that staff are reluctant to report this due to a lack of job security, not knowing who to complain to or not believing that anything will be done.

Caroline Doran Millett, an international partner in the Employment Law team at Royds Withy King warns that businesses are failing to protect staff with out-of-date harassment policies that do not reflect the widespread shift to hybrid working patterns.

She stated:

Female employees are often put in uncomfortable or intolerable positions, humiliated in front of their male colleagues.

Many do not know how to respond and feel that the only response is to see it as a joke. It isn’t. Employers are leaving themselves exposed to employment tribunal claims.

Research carried out by Royds Withy King and Fram Search surveyed 100 financial services businesses but found that nine in 10 (90 per cent) had not updated harassment policies in the past two years despite the largest shift in working patterns in a generation.

Ms. Millett reminded employers of their duty of care towards staff and their safety in the workplace:

Employers are liable for the harassment of staff wherever they work. They need to be able to demonstrate that they have taken meaningful and reasonable steps to prevent harassment. This does not appear to be happening in many instances.

It is not acceptable for staff to face daily harassment online, whether intended or not. Employers who do not address face unlimited fines in employment tribunals and sanction from the Financial Conduct Authority which views non-financial misconduct as serious as financial misconduct.

This comes as the issue is gaining wider traction with the Government having launched a consultation earlier this year, creating a legal obligation for employers to take positive steps to stop harassment in the workplace rather than simply react to it.