There’s been a surge in employees working remotely since COVID-19 hit the US. With telework comes new and unique challenges for ensuring that employees don’t violate federal or state anti-discrimination and harassment laws.
What is considered harassment?
To be considered unlawful, workplace harassment must be unwelcome and based on a protected class such as race, gender, age, religion, national origin, or disability. Harassment only becomes unlawful when tolerating it is a condition of continued employment, or it’s so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would find it hostile or intimidating. Some states use a lower standard for harassment, so you don’t want to turn a blind eye to any report, even if the issue seems minor.
If any of this information is unfamiliar to you, you might consider taking harassment prevention training yourself and train all employees. Some states require this, but even if yours doesn’t, it’s something we recommend for all employees.
Situations to avoid
When working from home, the desire to work in comfortable clothing could tip from casual to inappropriate. There are numerous memes and stories about mistakes like this… employees with professional tops but no bottoms or a family member is Dashing by in the buff.
To avoid this happening to your employees, you can help them out by being explicit about expectations and making sure they plan accordingly for the possibility of technology or wardrobe malfunctions. Also, ensure that employees also take stock of what’s in their background. Could there be inappropriate personal items that some might consider offensive?
Another thing you may want to consider is whether or not internet virtual meetings are scheduled equitably. For example, if a manager check-ins with men in a department are over the phone, but a video is mandatory for women, that would cause concern.
Finally, virtual happy hours have become a common event to keep employees connected. If you’re going to do this, set expectations around respectful behavior, and encourage employees to drink responsibly if allowed. During happy hours remind employees that harassment and other conduct policies apply just as they would at any other company-sponsored function.
Review your policies
If you have not done so already, we recommend reviewing your company harassment and discrimination handbook policies to ensure they include and apply to remote work scenarios. Remember that working remotely may expose some employees who are less adept with technology to difficult situations, and age may or may not correlate with tech skills. Keep an eye out for not-so-harmless jokes about employees’ ages to avoid age-based harassment claims.
Whether you in or out of the office, your best tool and defense is a solid harassment prevention policy and training your managers. If you don’t have a policy in place, you can already get help creating one from one of our HR service partners.