By Howard Schragin and Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith
As the world has embraced remote work and its many benefits since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, there has been one notable downside – problematic workplace behavior has followed employees home, and remote/online harassment is becoming a significant problem for employees and employers alike. The key thing for employers to understand is that harassment does not have to occur in person for it to be illegal. It also does not have to occur during work hours to be illegal. Any technology that enables remote work to be possible may be leveraged for harassment. Harassment can occur through email, text messaging, virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom, and instant messaging platforms such as Slack and Teams. The impersonal online environment emboldens people who would not otherwise engage in harassing or bullying behavior in person/face to face. Harassers feel they can say or do things via email, text message, or instant messaging that they would not do in person. This mindset creates a breeding ground for remote workplace harassment, and it is incumbent upon employers to proactively take steps to ensure that their remote workers are safe from discriminatory, harassing, or bullying behavior.
How Does Digital Workplace Harassment Manifest?
Digital workplace harassment can take many forms. Online sexual harassment includes the sharing of inappropriate pictures, the sharing of links to inappropriate content, the use of suggestive emojis, persistent requests for a coworker to go out (i.e., stalking), sending requests for explicit photos or videos, sharing personal details about an employee with coworkers, spreading rumors about a coworker’s sex life. Remote harassment may also be based on protected categories other than sex and gender, including, for example, race, national origin, disability, and age. This may include offensive epithets intended to diminish colleagues or mocking them online. Such comments may come from managers, coworkers, or even clients/customers
Other Forms of Discrimination in the Remote Workplace
Discriminatory behaviors are another form of digital workplace harassment. Employees who work remotely may still be subject to disparate treatment—for example, excluding employees from virtual meetings or assigning low-value accounts or lesser duties to some employees while assigning choice clients to others. It may also include certain individuals being allowed to work remotely while others are not. Discrimination can also take the form of an employer failing to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability or religion, where doing so would not cause the employer significant difficulty or expense.
How Should Employers Modify Their Anti- Discrimination and Harassment Policies to Combat Remote Discrimination and Harassment?
As noted above, employers must ensure that their anti-discrimination and harassment policies are updated to cover online and remote harassment. Policies should explicitly prohibit harassment and discrimination of any form through electronic communications or digital media. Policies should also make it clear that the rules apply equally to remote workers. Employers should also make sure that policies are disseminated to all employees, including remote workers, and that all employees are trained on anti-discrimination and harassment prevention which should be done on a yearly basis. This is particularly true for out-of-state and full-time remote workers.
Company training materials should be updated to include incidents of harassment that take place in the remote work environment. Employees must be notified of who within the company is responsible for receiving reports about harassment and how they can make those reports. Employees should also be given information about their legal rights, including how to contact state and local government agencies that investigate harassment and discrimination.
How Should Employers Respond to Allegations of Remote Workplace Harassment?
Employers should respond to allegations of remote workplace harassment the same as they would in-person harassment. Employers should promptly address and investigate claims of remote workplace harassment. Investigations into allegations must be handled with care. Protocols should be established in advance to ensure the process is proactive, effective, consistent, and meets the company’s legal obligations. Employers should be prepared to take interim steps to prevent further remote harassment and take appropriate disciplinary action if warranted following an investigation. Investigations are only useful if employers take action to correct behaviors that violate company policy.