Can Sexual Harassment & Discrimination Happen to Remote Employees?

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Can Sexual Harassment & Discrimination Happen to Remote Employees?

Sexual harassment and discrimination are illegal in the U.S. This includes unwanted sexual advances or requests for favors of a sexual nature. It includes physical and verbal harassment that’s of a sexual nature. Inappropriate physical touches could as sexual harassment. It can also include offensive remarks about people of that gender or that specific worker, applicant, or contractor.

When it comes to sexual harassment and discrimination, the accused might be a supervisor, co-worker, client, supplier, or owner. It’s important to remember this. What about remote workers? If you’re working from a remote office, can sexual discrimination and harassment happen? Do the same rules apply?

Sexual Harassment and Discrimination in Remote Work

Sexual harassment and discrimination laws apply to any workplace, whether it’s remote work or in-person work. If an act is illegal in a workplace, at a work conference, or after hours through chats and emails, the same rules apply to remote workers. It’s more common in a remote work situation because workers and contractors may not realize that sexual harassment and discrimination laws apply outside of the office or building.

Remote workers have access to virtual communication tools like Zoom, GChat, or Skype. It makes it easy to reach out, which can be distracting and also lead to inappropriate conversations that one person feels was funny but the others don’t, or if someone has offensive music playing in their home office and refuses to turn it off during a quick video chat. If it offends someone else in the video chat, it’s a problem.

Another problem is that remote workers may find it harder to reach out to HR or management for support. If there is harassment, HR isn’t just down the hallway or on another floor, HR is reachable only by email or phone, so there’s a bit of a disconnect. If workers are in different time zones, it adds to the frustration. Responses can be slow to arrive, and that allows the discriminatory and harassing acts to continue.

The perpetrators also have more access to items like legalized marijuana and alcohol in a home office. This can lessen inhibitions and lead to moments of very poor judgment. If one worker is in Hawaii, they could still be at work while someone in California is done working for the night and has had a few drinks that make them a little too vocal. This is often a problem with remote work environments that span different time zones.

Two Types of Sexual Harassment Claims Exist

If you are a victim of sexual harassment, there are two types of claims. The first is filed against someone in a position of power. It might be your direct supervisor, your district manager, or the CEO of the company. Quid pro quo claims often include being told you won’t get a promotion unless you agree to go on a date or perform a sexual act in exchange for the promotion.

The other type involves a hostile work environment. In a hostile work environment, you can file your complaint against anyone associated with the company. For example, the IT consultant setting up your home office with work computers and printers keeps touching your hair when walking past your desk. You’ve asked that consultant to stop, but it’s not changing the behavior. You’re uncomfortable and can’t focus on work. That’s a hostile work environment.

California’s sexual harassment laws are a little different from other states’ laws. Sexual desire and sexually related acts are not the only areas of misconduct. Sexual harassment can be based on gender, pregnancy/childbirth, or sexual orientation. Suppose you just had a baby. A co-worker comments on the size of your breasts during a Zoom meeting and makes you uncomfortable, that counts as sexual harassment.

What does sexual harassment look like in a remote world? A New York journalist didn’t believe people could see him during a video chat and got caught pleasuring himself. He didn’t intend for others to see him, but it happened and complaints were filed against him and he lost his job.

A worker may see a meme of a woman in a bikini that amuses that employee, but after sharing it with everyone in a group email, females are offended. That counts as sexual harassment.

Suppose a male employee is always being asked to hop on video chats with his female supervisor. During those chats, the supervisor keeps telling him how good he looks with flirtatious comments, but there never seems to be a reason for a video chat. The point of the meeting seems minimal and could have been addressed in an email. He learns from other co-workers that they never have video chats and always get emails and nothing more. He could have a valid sexual harassment claim.

Before a video chat, women in the meeting are asked to stand up and show a male client what they’re wearing. Male employees are not asked the same question. That’s another example of discriminatory and harassing behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.

What Do You Do If You’re a Victim?

What do you do if you are the victim of sexual harassment or discrimination and work remotely? First, document everything and keep those records by collecting transcripts in a download or screenshots that have the date and time. If it’s an instant message that doesn’t allow you to download it, make sure you get a screenshot. Print copies in case your access to company servers is removed after you file a complaint.

Second, look at your employee handbook and find the specific rules. It will tell you how to file a complaint. Use those guidelines to take the next steps. You may need to talk to your supervisor or HR department first. Give them a chance to correct the issue. If nothing changes, schedule a free consultation with an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment and discrimination cases.

You may know there is a company history of HR blurting out names and not treating complaints with the anonymity that’s required. If this is true, don’t go to your HR department. File a complaint with the EEOC or talk to an employment law specialist.

Shegerian-Conniff specializes in sexual discrimination and harassment cases and hostile workplaces. Talk to us about your situation, the steps you’ve taken to get help, and what happened after you reported someone for sexual harassment or discrimination. We’ll go over your options and discuss the next steps to take. 

It’s our goal to fight for your rights and ensure you’re treated fairly and lawfully while at work or after the workday ends. Fill out the online form to arrange a virtual consultation or to learn more about sexual harassment cases.

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