The COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated the move toward remote work, and many companies have since made adjustments to allow large numbers of their workforces to continue working from home. Remote work provides workers with numerous benefits, including the elimination of commute times and travel costs, increased time at home to spend with family members, reduced career clothing budgets, and reduced childcare costs. Because of these benefits, many workers who have been given the choice to return to the office or continue to work remotely have opted for the second option.
While some workers might have thought that working remotely would also put a stop to workplace harassment, that has unfortunately not been the case. Instead, harassers have discovered new ways to target victims by moving their conduct to the online workplace environment. While people might be unsure whether this type of sexual harassment constitutes unlawful conduct, workplace sexual harassment is illegal whether it’s conducted in person or online. Here’s what you should know about the problem of online sexual harassment for the modern workforce from the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler.
Prevalence of Online Workplace Sexual Harassment
A couple of studies have demonstrated that sexual harassment continues to be a problem even though many employees have moved to remote work. In a 2021 survey conducted by All Voices with 886 workers, 38% of the participants reported they had experienced sexual harassment while working remotely. The respondents reported being harassed by co-workers or supervisors through a variety of mediums, including telephone calls, online chats, video conferencing calls, and email.
A second survey that was conducted by Project Include between May 2020 and Feb. 2021 also found that sexual harassment continued to be a problem despite the move to remote work. This survey included 2,796 respondents, and 26% reported they had actually experienced an increase in sexual harassment in their workplaces since moving to remote work. Among women, non-binary, and gender-queer respondents, 40% reported they had experienced more harassment since working remotely. Additionally, all groups of respondents reported an increase in ethnic and racial harassment since the start of the pandemic.
These studies demonstrate that illegal workplace harassment did not end when companies moved many of their employees to remote work during the pandemic. Instead, the studies indicate that the issue worsened in some cases. It is critical for employees to understand what constitutes illegal workplace harassment in an online work environment and for employers to take steps to prevent it.
What Is Online Sexual Harassment With Remote Work?
Workplace sexual harassment is a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Under these laws, the creation of a hostile work environment for victims amounts to illegal workplace harassment. A hostile work environment can be created when a victim is targeted by persistent, pervasive harassment over several months or when a single incident is severe enough that a reasonable person would find the work environment hostile.
Even when employees work remotely, they can still be the victims of sexual harassment conducted online. The following are examples of conduct that might constitute illegal online sexual harassment:
- Sexual questions during video conferences or calls
- Unwanted advances via chat apps or text messages
- Flirtatious comments during remote meetings
- Obscene jokes during remote meetings
- Explicit photographs or depictions sent by email or text message
- Exhibition of intimate body parts during meetings
- Repeated calls, texts, or emails soliciting sex or making unwanted advances
What Employees Can Do To Stop Online Sexual Harassment
Employees can take the following steps to put an end to online sexual harassment while working remotely:
1. Tell the Harasser to Stop
You can start by telling the harasser to stop and let them know that what they are doing is unwelcome. In some cases, this might be enough to end harassment before it worsens. For example, if your co-worker sends a message that includes an unwelcome advance, telling them not to message you and that you are uninterested might be enough to put an end to it. Similarly, if someone tells an offensive joke during a remote meeting, address it immediately and tell them that the joke is offensive.
2. Speak Out When You Witness Online Sexual Harassment
If you see someone else being sexually harassed while working remotely during a meeting, intervene. Call out the harasser publicly and tell them to stop. Send a message to the victim and ask if they’re okay and if they need any help.
3. Report Sexual Harassment
Whether you are the victim of online sexual harassment while working remotely or have witnessed someone else being harassed, report it to your company’s human resources department. If you can, include screenshots or recordings of the harassing behavior with your internal complaint, and keep a copy of the complaint you file with your company.
What Employers Should Do to Prevent or Stop Online Sexual Harassment
Employers should take the following steps to prevent or stop online sexual harassment within the remote workforce:
1. Address Online Harassment in the Company’s Sexual Harassment Policy
Companies should review their sexual harassment policies and update them to include online sexual harassment. The policy should also include information about how employees can file complaints and the investigatory steps human resources professionals should take. Employees should be encouraged to report misconduct and feel safe in doing so.
2. Ask Employees to Maintain Professionalism
It can be easy to blur the lines between work and home when working from home. Ask employees to use a standard virtual background when they attend virtual meetings to protect their privacy and minimize distractions. Train employees about your expectations for their conduct while working remotely, including expected etiquette standards while emailing, calling, or messaging each other.
3. Train Managers and Employees
Managers and employees should be trained about their employer’s policies about online sexual harassment and appropriate communications. They should be trained to identify and respond to harassment and intervene when they witness it occurring to others. Employees should be encouraged to report sexual harassment. The company should have clear policies stating that retaliation for reporting online sexual harassment is illegal and won’t be tolerated.
4. Investigate Promptly and Discipline Appropriately
When an employer receives a complaint about workplace sexual harassment online, they should promptly investigate what happened and respond appropriately. Employers should take steps to protect the victim from further harassment and discipline the perpetrator if the investigation reveals harassment occurred.
Talk to Swartz Swidler
If you are experiencing online sexual harassment by a co-worker or supervisor while working remotely, you might have legal rights. Contact the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler for a free consultation at (856) 685-7420.