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Telework harassment in the spotlight as Japan insurers move to cover potential claims

In this unrelated photo, an office in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward is seen empty after employees began teleworking, on Feb. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Instances of telework harassment -- or remote harassment -- taking place between colleagues at meetings held online and in other working situations, are becoming a serious issue in Japan.

Although the spread of the novel coronavirus has created an opportunity for the widespread uptake of remote working, there are many cases of older senior colleagues unused to the change commenting on the private lives of their subordinates, in a trend being instigated by the glimpse into people's lives that remote working can provide. Such cases pose a risk companies cannot overlook, and insurance products to cover legal fees and other expenses in the event of a complaint have entered the market.

A 35-year-old female employee at a telecommunications firm in Tokyo took slightly longer to exit an online meeting than her other colleagues, leaving just her and her boss on the call. It was then he asked her, "I know you stayed behind because you wanted to have a drink with me on here. Shall we have a drink?" On other occasions he has apparently repeatedly made sexually harassing remarks, delivered while smiling, such as "Oh, no makeup today," and, "What's your apartment, a room and kitchen? Isn't your boyfriend in the same room as you at the moment?"

The woman angrily said, "I felt like I could kill him. He's a person who normally says things that constitute sexual harassment, but it has become worse since we started having online meetings."

A 36-year-old man who lives in Tokyo and works for a consultancy told the Mainichi Shimbun that a superior berated him in the middle of an online meeting, saying, "Your kid is loud. Shut them up." His child is still only 1 year old, and because his wife is also working from home, she can't always look after the child either. With no other solution, the man ended up taking his computer with him outside onto their balcony, and took part in the meeting from there. The man lamented, "My boss even asked, 'What's your wife doing right now?' He has no concept of what it's like in a household where both partners work."

Tokio Marine & Nichido Risk Consulting Co. is being approached by many people about telework harassment from their companies. Senior researcher Masanobu Yamamoto says, "People are at home, so even managers are more relaxed and therefore more likely to tread on their staff's privacy. In a one-to-one online meeting, there's no one else to see what's going on, making it particularly easy for remote harassment to take place." He also said that actions such as not calling specific employees to an online meeting, or pushing people to join in online drinks parties, could also constitute telework harassment.

As remote working becomes more widespread, the costs of handling these cases will present new risks for companies. Insurance plans for sexual and power harassment already exist, but from June Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. has begun selling a plan for companies that includes comprehensive cover for risks concerning telework. Among its provisions, it can pay legal fees in the event a firm is sued for remote work harassment, as well as in cases where damages must be awarded, or companies can receive damages if an employee leaks data from a computer loaned to them by an employer.

The plan's premiums vary based on a company's turnover and the kind of business they are involved in, but for a retailer with sales of around 100 million yen, it would cost about 300,000 yen a year to be covered. Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co. and Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co. also released similar insurances plans in May. Sompo Japan Insurance Inc. also intends to offer its own version from July.

(Japanese original by Koki Mikami and Naoko Furuyashiki, Business News Department)

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