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Shield: Proliferation of Electronic Communications Leads to Rise Harassment, Market Abuse

Despite a growing attitude of acceptance towards lifestyles and choices people are making, some employees are still suffering from harassment in their workplaces. Most importantly, employers must look to build a diverse team, and encourage inclusion, but how can they monitor their employees in a way that doesn’t cause employees to be defensive, reserved and ultimately feel spied on in their workplace? 

Shiran Weitzman, Co-Founder and CEO of Shield discusses the uses of AI and other forms of tech that could be used to help employers identify abusers – as well as pointing out the flaws with using technology:

Shiran Weitzman, Co-Founder and CEO of Shield
Shiran Weitzman, Co-Founder and CEO of Shield

During this new, hybrid work-from-home era, we’ve become overly reliant on new digital communication channels. While email has long been the communication tool of choice since its inception, Slack and Zoom are more relied upon now than ever. Beyond those tools, today’s employees within regulated financial institutions are receiving business text messages on their personal phones while also taking calls through encrypted services like WhatsApp. There’s no doubt these new messaging apps boost efficiency and make business communication easier, however, the unsecured nature of these services has led to a significant increase in sexual harassment, racism and market abuse across these now crucial and necessary business channels.

While executives within finance may be the loudest critics when it comes to working from home, a survey published in November 2021 found that only 27 per cent of employees within finance are making their way back to their New York City offices in the finance capital of the world. Working from home is here to stay, whether that’s a hybrid approach or full-on remote, so financial firms must take action when it comes to preventing inappropriate, and in many cases illegal, communication across work channels.  According to The State of Workplace Harassment 2021 survey by All Voices, 38 per cent of responders still experienced harassment remotely, whether it’s through email, video conferencing, chat apps or by phone, while 24 per cent believe harassment continues or gets worse through remote work channels.

Electronic Communications a Breeding Ground for Market Abuse

The sheer increase in the number of communication channels makes it more difficult than ever for employers to monitor and catch misconduct and harassment at the workplace. Beyond the importance of a healthy, positive and productive workplace culture, where everyone feels as if they belong, regulators are also starting to poke around the influx of communication channels being used throughout finance. Reuters reported in October 2021 that the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) opened a broad inquiry into how Wall Street banks are tracking and recording employee communications across digital channels. At the heart of the issue, according to the SEC, is the need to document and archive employee communication, like text messages and emails, particularly when employees are using their personal devices.

The inquiry was brought about after JPMorgan Chase & Co disclosed it had concerns with “compliance with records preservation requirements in connection with business communications sent over electronic messaging channels” that were not approved by the Wall Street giant. The result was a record $200million fine for JP Morgan after the SEC found that it failed to keep records of messages from employees, including tens of thousands of messages across WhatsApp, text messages and personal email accounts.

While the pandemic certainly brought the importance of archiving employee communication to the forefront, it’s not a new problem. Just this month, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) fined two Wells Fargo broker-dealers more than two million dollars for failing to store 13 million customer records in the proper format over a time period of 17-years.

To combat facing similar fines as JP Morgan and Well Fargo, Credit Sussie recently requested access to employees’ personal devices, which some criticised as being overly intrusive. Other institutions have begun to rely on “tattleware” technology, or surveillance software that is downloaded onto employees’ computers (and even cellphones) to ensure they are staying active throughout the workday. The problem is that many existing “tattleware” solutions simply measure productivity by counting keystrokes or the number of emails sent out in a day, without understanding what’s actually being written with those keystrokes or the context of those emails. It’s also worth mentioning that many of the productivity monitoring solutions can have an inverse effect on employees who often feel as if their employers lack trust and are watching over their shoulder once that type of software is installed, especially on an employee’s own personal device.

The Rise of Digital Hate Speech at Work

Today, more than ever before, electronic communications are the enabler of business continuity. Financial firms rely on apps such as Microsoft Teams and the like to send messages in real time that facilitate financial transactions. Without these tools, billions of dollars could be lost daily, however, much like social media platforms that connect people from around the world, there is a dark side.

“Trolling” online has become commonplace among our society, and many attribute it to the “the online disinhibition effect”, which affords us with a false sense of protection and fuels our bravado. This ugly phenomenon, unfortunately, has seeped into the modern-day work-from-home culture. Being physically separated has not reduced the number of racist or sexist behaviour incidents, but instead, has led to a rise in microaggressions.

Sexual harassment, racism, in addition to the market abuse discussed above, are all on the rise in this era of working from home, where modern digital communications have simply made it possible for people to be harassed on more channels than in the past. These include phone calls, emails, chat apps, direct messaging, video calls, and the list goes on. And it’s not just institutions dealing with these issues, but regulators themselves.

Recently, British Members of Parliament called upon employees within the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), a financial regulatory body in the United Kingdom, to speak out. It came after an FCA employee called for “urgent” and “robust” parliamentary scrutiny into the regulator’s “entirely toxic” culture. Beyond finance, toxic electronic communication came to the forefront of the mainstream media after emails containing overly racist and homophobic remarks were leaked from a high-profile coach in the National Football League. The coach was fired, but many are wondering just how systemic the issue is within America’s most popular sports league.

What Do We Do About It?

So how can financial firms address nefarious, inappropriate and illegal language across electronic communication channels? While the proliferation of messaging and video apps has made negative and non-compliant communication more commonplace, we can also lean on advanced tech to address these critical concerns without infringing on employees’ personal rights, especially when you consider the different ways we communicate today.

As Millennials move into more managerial roles and Gen Z enters the corporate workforce, their modern communication styles are making their way into the business setting and causing confusion when it comes to compliance.  Recent research suggests that emojis, commonly used throughout business Slack channels, emails and more, mask the malintent and make it three times less likely to be detected because visual expressions, like emojis, gifs and images, camouflage non-compliant behaviours such as market abuse, racism, and sexual harassment by obfuscating intent.

Voice notes and video messages, ever becoming more popular, are also complicating compliance’s ability to archive communication and pinpoint malintent. When slang expressions or different languages are being used, the complexity is even more amplified.

To address these concerns, financial institutions must consider total workplace intelligence platforms that do more than randomly take screenshots of your computer screen throughout the day or report how long you’ve been “logged on”, but it’s important these platforms don’t put employees on the defensive. For the many reasons stated above, employers must monitor employees’ behaviour and dialogue, but only in an unobtrusive way so that employees still feel trusted and motivated.

Advanced tech, like artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processors are being developed and have the ability to understand context and decipher between personal versus business communications, but there is no doubt it’s a slippery slope that raises more questions than answers. As the tech continues to develop, the best thing employers can do is build a diverse, positive workplace culture based on inclusion and understanding, while staying up to date on the latest tech offerings and finding solutions specifically tailored for their business needs.


About Shield:

Shield is a Workplace Intelligence platform focusing on communications compliance which automates the complete communications life cycle. By utilising AI, Natural Language Processing, and Visualisation capabilities, Shield helps financial organisations mitigate risk and drive an efficient and ROI-positive surveillance process. Shield is addressing some of the most burning challenges in the financial compliance domain, such as trade and eComms surveillance, market abuse, trade reconstruction, record-keeping, 360 investigations, and more.


  • Francis is a journalist and our lead LatAm correspondent, with a BA in Classical Civilization, he has a specialist interest in North and South America.

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