Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace

Online Work Sexual HarassmentThe shift to remote operations over the past year and a half has reshaped work. Remote work has a great many advantages—most importantly, keeping workers and their families safe from the threat of COVID-19; but also increasing flexibility, productivity, and focus. As workers adapted to this new reality, however, problems found in the office continued remotely. Chief among these is sexual harassment. California law, however, forbids sexual harassment, even if it occurs remotely.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. California law defines two major types of sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” harassment and the creation of a “hostile work environment.” Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to sexual comments or conduct, framed as an exchange for the granting, denial, or retention of a job or job benefits. In this scenario, for example, the harasser might demand sex from an employee, and tell the employee that they will be fired if they do not comply. A hostile work environment is created in California when sexual harassment is so severe or pervasive that it alters the working conditions and environment.

The harassment need not be motivated by a desire for sexual gratification, but may instead be based on an individual’s actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Courts have held that sexual harassment can occur between individuals of the same gender. And particularly relevant in the age of remote work, employers and individual harassers can still be liable for sexual harassment even if it takes place online or otherwise away from the office.

The breakdown of barriers between work and home as many workplaces quickly pivoted to remote work at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the false impression that individuals are not “really” at work, and therefore do not need to behave appropriately. This problem captured the headlines in fall 2020, when The New Yorker fired writer Jeffrey Toobin for exposing himself during a staff Zoom call. Incidents like this have occurred in workplaces across the country. A Deloitte survey found that 52 percent of women have experienced some form of discrimination or harassment while working from home over the past year. The study found that women of color and LGBTQ individuals were more likely to be subjected to harassment.

What Employers Should Do To Prevent and Address Sexual Harassment in the Remote Workplace

Employers must remind workers that while they may be working from home, they are still entering a professional zone when they log into work spaces like team Zoom meetings. Employers must also act swiftly to discipline offenders, and offer support to any workers affected by sexually harassing conduct.

Monitoring sexual harassment in the workplace has its own benefits for employers—the Deloitte study found that when women experience a “truly respectful and inclusive culture, they are more engaged, productive, and loyal.” Further, the study warned that if business leaders fail to address gender inequality in the workplace, they may struggle to attract and retain young talent, who tend to prioritize inclusive work cultures.

Employers should adapt to today’s remote work reality by modifying sexual harassment policies and handbooks to include policies on harassment via technology like email, Zoom, and messaging apps like iMessage and Slack. They must also monitor the remote workplace for instances of sexual harassment, and encourage any victims to come forward—remembering that they have the same responsibility to prevent and address instances of sexual harassment when it occurs remotely as they did back in the office.

What Should You Do if You Are Sexually Harassed in the Remote Workplace?

Sexual harassment is never the victim’s fault. If you are sexually harassed, you should document the incident and report it to your employer. You can also contact a lawyer, who will help guide you through the next steps. This process may include first filing a complaint with state administrative agencies, followed by a lawsuit.

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