When the pandemic initially hit in the spring of 2020, many businesses across the country transitioned to working from home. Over two years later, many companies have maintained this practice and no longer require employees to come to the office. Surprisingly, however, despite the fact that many employees no longer see their supervisors or colleagues face-to-face anymore (or far less often), reports of ‘virtual’ sexual harassment have skyrocketed. It is important to know that this behavior, even if not in person, is unacceptable and you should not have to deal with it – even while working from home. In this article, we discuss what constitutes as online or virtual sexual harassment, and what you can do to address it.
What Constitutes Online Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace?
Online sexual harassment is any sort of harassment that relates to a person’s gender or sexuality that is conveyed using online resources, like instant messaging or emails. It can consist of sending messages or images of a sexual nature that make the recipient feel threatened, uncomfortable or uneasy about the communication, or unwanted advances. It could also consist of making sexual comments during a video conferencing meeting. Just because the communications happen through electronic channels rather than in person does not mean that they do not constitute sexual harassment.
Why has Sexual Harassment in the workplace Increased Despite Employees Working Remotely?
A surprising 2021 report from AllVoices found that at least 38% of employees working remotely experienced harassment through different remote platforms, such as through video meetings, emails, and instant messaging apps. An additional 24% of employees reported that the harassment had actually worsened since transitioning to remote work. Why is this happening? One suggestion is that employees feel as though they are less likely to be caught because a boss or other colleagues aren’t watching as closely as they used to. Other thoughts suggest that the high level of stress we have all experienced over the last couple of years has made individuals more likely to act inappropriately as a sort of coping mechanism. In any event, such behaviors are not tolerable, and you should know what to do if you are being sexually harassed remotely.
How is Sexual Harassment that Occurs during Remote Work Different from in the Office?
The biggest difference between in-person and remote sexual harassment is that remote sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment through electronic means. Whereas in-person sexual harassment is usually face-to-face and might consist of off-handed comments or inappropriate touching, remote sexual harassment utilizes technology to convey the unwanted statement. In other words, the harasser utilizes online communication platforms, such as emails, video conferencing, instant messaging, or chat apps to facilitate the inappropriate communication.
What can Companies do to keep their Employees Safe from Sexual Harassment?
Employers still have a duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, even if work is being completed in employees’ homes. Even while working from home, it is important to set up sexual harassment training sessions that include information about remote sexual harassment, and periodically send your employees reminders about the company’s policy on sexual harassment. It is also helpful to remind your employees how to report such instances of remote sexual harassment and fully investigate any reports that do arise about such behaviors.
How do you Discipline an Employee Remotely?
It might seem strange, but disciplining employees remotely is quite similar to disciplining in person. If a company sexual harassment policy has been broken, follow the procedures you already have in place, whether it is giving an employee a verbal warning or an extreme course of action, such as a suspension. Encourage other employees to communicate if those disciplinary actions are not being followed (for example, if someone sends an email when they are supposed to be suspended).
What should Employees do if they Experience Sexual Harassment during Remote Work?
Remote sexual harassment is still sexual harassment, and you have the right to work free of a hostile work environment – even if you are working from home. If you are being subjected to unwanted emails, messages or comments that are sexual in nature while working remotely, you should immediately report such behavior, preferably to a supervisor who has the ability to disciple the employee. If your company has an HR representative, they can be another good resource for reporting the harassment. It is also helpful to preserve the unwanted message, even though it might make you uncomfortable to do so. Having copies of such comments will always bring more credibility to your case and assist you in getting the help that you need.
Contact Zeff Law Firm for a Free Consultation if you have Experience Sexual Harassment While Working Remotely.
Zeff Law Firm has a strong history of working with employees who have been exposed to hostile work environments and sexual harassment. Though the increase in remote harassment is something that many companies are facing for the first time, our firm understanding of the law and the protections it affords employees can help ensure that you get the help you need or the compensation you deserve. Contact us now for a free consultation to discuss your case and the many ways that we can help you.