With the move to remote work over the last three years, most employees have embraced new digital communications tools, increased their productivity, and expanded their networks. Unfortunately, some employees have taken advantage of these new, unmonitored, one-on-one communication channels to harass and discriminate against their coworkers.
A recent survey examining working conditions since the onset of COVID-19 reports that 94% of workers who experienced increased discrimination in remote work environments were multiracial, Hispanic, Asian American, or African American. Being physically located at home gave these workers no respite from discrimination from their coworkers.
In this article, the Smithey Law Group team explores issues of discrimination in remote work environments and how to address them. Both employers and employees may find our guide helpful. Our goal is to help identify what exactly is “remote work discrimination” and help companies put some guardrails around their workforce to keep it from happening in the first place. If you have experienced remote workplace discrimination, contact us today!
What Is Remote Work Discrimination?
Remote work discrimination is precisely what it sounds like—discrimination based on a protected characteristic that occurs in a remote work environment. Employers have an obligation to comply with state and federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws regardless of whether their employee is working in an office or remotely from home. In this case, an employer may be responsible for harassment, discrimination, and retaliation committed by its employees through virtual forms of communication like video conferencing, instant messaging, and email.
Types of Remote Work Discrimination
People with disabilities can often benefit from remote and flexible work. Remote and flexible work was frequently requested by disabled people long before the pandemic, yet these requests were frequently denied. Employers often stated a belief that productivity or commitment would suffer if an employee were allowed to work from home. Moving to remote work during the pandemic has shown many employers that remote work is not only feasible but often more productive and more lucrative.
Ableism could come into play when a disabled employee who has shown great initiative as a remote employee during the height of the pandemic is refused an accommodation to continue to work from home after lockdowns and restrictions are eased.
Since older workers are often less familiar with new technologies than their younger coworkers, reports suggest they may experience a great deal of ageism and discrimination in remote work environments. With the adoption of new virtual work technologies, older adults who fail to quickly adapt to new technology can quickly be branded as being “not a team player” in a remote workplace. Where older workers fail to adapt immediately, ageism may drive decision-making with regard to their continued employment.
Black Americans who engage in code-switching to appear more similar to and aligned with white middle and upper-class professional standards may be more likely to be hired than their counterparts who do not engage in code-switching. However, with remote work, co-workers now have a glimpse into their colleagues’ homes, families, and even bedrooms. In these cases, Black workers may find that the ways they express their authentic selves within their own homes quickly become weaponized against them in the workplace. This can be simply because parts of their homes are on view during videoconferences.
Some colleagues may use remote work as an opportunity to display sexist behaviors about other employees’ home lives, caretaking responsibilities, and family norms. Video conferencing and electronic chats enable coworkers to become part of each others’ lives in ways they were never able to before. This can leave employees especially vulnerable to discrimination in remote work environments, particularly when their lives or lifestyles do not conform to “traditional” norms.
On-camera requirements and unintentionally insensitive icebreakers are examples of opportunities for microaggressions in the virtual work environment. Forcing employees to reveal the full extent of their socioeconomic status and home situation by mandating on-camera time can create extremely uncomfortable situations for employees that could rise to the level of microaggressions. As noted above, details observed from an employee’s workspace while in a camera-on virtual meeting can give people information to target individuals for their race, sex, and ability.
Best Practices to Address Workplace Discrimination During Remote Work
Creating an inclusive, safe workplace does not require a physical office space. Having clear reporting lines for employees to follow if issues arise can help prevent discrimination in remote work environments and help employees thrive online. Some employees—particularly those of color, women, older employees, and those with disabilities—may feel uncomfortable reporting abuse. This could be due to past inaction or poor response from a company’s human resources department or because of fear of retaliation. In such cases, employers may need to rethink how they perform the human resources function within their organization and evaluate whether the team requires additional training. In other cases, employers may need to outsource the whole department to enhance trust and confidentiality and remove toxic behaviors from the workplace.
Employees should be trained on how to be empathetic and inclusive in their chat and email interactions. This can empower employees to prevent microaggressions and create a more welcoming remote work environment. Expectations for meeting attendance, participation, and attire may need to be modified from traditional in-office expectations.
Managers and supervisors may need to be trained in implicit bias. For instance, when managers assume individuals are not invested in their organization if they cannot or choose not to attend a meeting with their camera on, the entire organization risks losing dedicated workers. Instead, managers should consider and respect their team members’ unique circumstances and engage in direct discussion when possible.
How Smithey Law Group Can Help
If you are an employee and think you have experienced discrimination in a remote work environment, contact Joyce E. Smithey to arrange a confidential consultation about your Annapolis employment discrimination matter. Joyce is the managing partner in the Maryland law firm of Smithey Law Group LLC, representing employers and employees throughout Maryland and the D.C. area. Call or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation with our Annapolis discrimination attorneys.