While some employees have returned to the office, a significant number continue to work at home remotely, at least a few days a week. Many may be under the assumption that with remote work, there is less workplace harassment taking place because employees are less often in the same physical place. Nothing could be farther from the reality even in the virtual workplace. Instead, remote work increases the opportunity for certain types of unlawful harassment to occur.
Hostile Work Environment
Hostile work environment harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to offensive behavior based on a protected category. Keep in mind, hostile work environment is not limited to sexual harassment but can include harassment based on age, race, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and a whole host of other protected categories. The offensive conduct that creates a hostile work environment is generally verbal, visual or physical. Remote workers are generally not exposed to physical offensive conduct but can still be subjected to offensive conduct that is both verbal or visual. Moreover, remote work creates many opportunities for unmonitored interactions between employees.
When in the traditional workplace, some harassers may be tempered by the fear of other co-workers witnessing their harassing behavior. This fear is largely removed in the remote workplace. Individuals may feel more at liberty to engage in questionable conduct because they believe in the virtual workplace – no one is watching them. A quick internet search reveals some disturbing examples. The offensive conduct can take many forms in the remote workplace including emails, texts, or other electronic forms of communications. It can also occur through Gifs, memes or videos one employee sends another.
Zoom is another platform which can create a dangerous environment for offensive conduct to occur. While we are all likely familiar with the infamous Jeffrey Toobin Zoom meeting, there are more subtle ways harassment can occur. In particular, harassment can occur during one-on-one zoom meetings, with one employee making offensive or unwelcome statements to another employee. Harassment, discrimination or retaliation can also occur when employees are intentionally excluded from remote meetings, among other activities.
Another factor to take into consideration is the more informal environment fostered by remote work. Co-workers may feel more relaxed in their “home offices” dressed in casual clothes and, as a result less inhibited. They may also have inappropriate personal items displayed within view of their co-workers that would never be acceptable in the office. This also can lead to employees engaging in inappropriate conduct in the virtual workplace. An offensive joke, a derogatory comment, or a sexual statement a potential harasser would not have contemplated in a physical office becomes more commonplace.
Employees should remember that their company’s policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation apply equally in the remote workplace as in the physical office. Accordingly, any employee who believes they have been subjected to unlawful harassment, discrimination or retaliation as a result of wrongful conduct in the remote workplace should speak with an employment attorney in Orange County. The attorneys at Ares Law Group are highly experienced in helping California employees who have suffered harassment, discrimination, or retaliation in the workplace (both traditional and remote) and provide free consultations.