When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the winter and spring of 2020, many businesses maintained their operations by enacting work-from-home policies. Nearly three years later, many companies have recognized the benefits of remote employment for both the company and its employees. However, despite the rise in remote employment, sexual harassment reports have not declined. In fact, in some cases, they have risen.
Even though many employees rarely or no longer see their colleagues in person, reports of virtual sexual harassment have skyrocketed. Employers and employees should know that this behavior is unwelcome and should not be tolerated. Sadly, it seems that sexual harassers and other workplace abusers failed to leave their antics in the physical office. Remote work may even make harassment easier. In this article, the Smithey Law Group team discusses what constitutes online or virtual sexual harassment and what employers and employees can do to address it. If you have experienced sexual harassment in the remote workplace, contact us today!
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace?
Defining Sexual Harassment During Remote Work
Sexual harassment in the remote work environment is any sort of harassment that relates to a person’s gender or sexuality that is carried out during online work or by remote workers. This means the harassment is conveyed using online resources, like Slack, Teams, Zoom, text, and email. Sexual harassment in the remote workplace can consist of sending messages or images of a sexual nature or about the recipient’s sex or gender that make the recipient feel threatened, uncomfortable, or uneasy about the nature or the contents of the communication. It can also include making unwanted advances using remote means.
Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace
Some examples of sexual harassment in remote work environments include:
- Jokes, memes, or other images shared through email or messaging of a sexual or sex-based nature, including sexually explicit content;
- Refusal to remove or deliberate display of suggestive or sexual pictures or products in one’s “frame” during a video conference;
- Suggestive comments or solicitations sent to a colleague through chat, private messaging, or by phone;
- Sexist comments made on a conference call, in a video conference or during a one-on-one discussion, whether directed at an individual or to a group; and
- Unsolicited distribution of explicit photographs of oneself or others.
These are only a few examples of sexual harassment in remote work environments. This is not an exhaustive list. Both employers and employees should keep in mind that if the conduct would have been unacceptable in the office, it is almost certainly not okay to send it or say it to a coworker in an online chat.
How Is Workplace Sexual Harassment Different in a Remote Workplace?
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 casual comments or inappropriate touching, remote sexual harassment utilizes technology to convey the harasser’s intent. In a world where sexual harassment cases were often characterized by “he said–she said” evidence, victims of these unspeakable acts may now have clear, written proof of their abuser’s conduct. If proof is not directly written, computer forensics may now help employers hold abusers to account and help victims get the justice they deserve.
How Can Employers Keep Employees Safe from Remote Employment Sexual Harassment?
There are many ways employers can keep employees safe when working remotely. In some cases, employer policies have not kept up with work-from-home realities. Even when employers have strong sexual harassment policies and clear reporting procedures, they may fail to take simple steps, like explicitly telling employees that these policies remain in effect while working from home. They may also fail to provide a clear reporting process when working remotely.
Employers still have a duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, regardless of whether work is being completed in employees’ homes or in an office.
What Should Employees Do if They Experience Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace?
Reporting Remote Workplace Sexual Harassment
In most situations, employees who have been victimized by a workplace sexual harasser need to report the harassment to their manager or to the company’s human resources department. Companies need to be told or otherwise made aware about sexual harassment within their ranks for them to become liable for it.
Documenting Remote Workplace Sexual Harassment
If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, remote or otherwise, you can help strengthen your potential case by documenting every aspect of what happened. Documentation should include:
- When and where any incidents occurred, including the name of the social or electronic channel so a forensic investigator can help retrieve the information;
- What happened or was said, including any images that were received; and
- Who else was present for or witnessed the incident.
Once your documentation is organized, follow your company’s procedure for reporting harassment. If you can’t find the information you need about how and to whom you should report sexual harassment, talk to your immediate supervisor or your human resources department. If your immediate supervisor is part of the harassment problem, speak with your human resources department. If your company does not have a human resources contact, you should report the issue to the next person above your supervisor in the reporting chain. 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. And while preserving unwanted messages and images may be painful or difficult, it is helpful to keep these communications to support your case later. Having copies of these types of comments can enhance the credibility of your case and assist you in getting the help you need.
How Smithey Law Can Help
If you need to speak with an Annapolis sexual harassment lawyer about an employment law matter, contact Joyce E. Smithey to arrange a confidential consultation. Ms. Smithey 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. To schedule a confidential consultation with our Annapolis discrimination attorneys, call us or contact us online today.