Whose idea was it to adopt a hybrid work schedule anyway? Regardless, your HR Department is on the phone asking for assistance with a remote work-related complaint. During a one-on-one meeting over Zoom, one of your employees, Don, asked Sarah where her home office was set up. Sarah briefly turned off her virtual background revealing that her office was in her bedroom. Later that same week, Don sent Sarah a direct message during an all-office Zoom meeting telling her that he "can't stop thinking about you working in your bedroom all day." Having heard the complaint, you call Don into your office where he refuses to acknowledge his wrongdoing because "we were both at home and my comment wasn't sexual." Does Don have a point? No, of course not.
In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers across the country were forced to change how and where employees performed their duties and responsibilities. Now, over three years after the onset of the pandemic, it is clear that remote and hybrid work is here to stay.
As employers continue to embrace work-from-home options for employees, a slew of new concerns and potential liabilities continue to arise. One particularly persistent issue is that as the workplace has been expanded into each employee's home, so has the potential for harassment. In fact, even though many employees no longer see and interact with colleagues in person on a daily basis, recent studies have found that instances of workplace harassment have increased over recent years.
Faced with a new frontier for potential workplace harassment liability, employers must get serious about confronting this emerging challenge brought about by remote work. In doing so, employers should consider updating and improving their anti-harassment policies and trainings in the following ways:
- Revise and update anti-harassment trainings to specifically include remote work scenarios and make clear that the remote workstation, including any virtual video or text-based platform, is an extension of the office, and harassment and/or discrimination that takes place over these platforms may contribute to a potential hostile work environment.
- As offices initially transitioned to remote work, it was not uncommon for employees to rely on personal phones and email accounts to stay in touch with coworkers. Remind employees that even though they may be communicating on a personal device, harassment can occur wherever and whenever work takes place.
- Advise employees that even when they are working from home, the company's dress code still applies, and that wearing offensive clothing can constitute harassment.
- Advise employees that because their remote workstation is an extension of the office, having inappropriate photos or items in their background (including a virtual background) might be considered harassment.
- Encourage employees to set up their at-home workstation in a quiet, isolated room as conversations inappropriate for the workplace occurring elsewhere in the home may be overheard online by coworkers.
- Work-from-home harassment, compared with what may occur in an office, is more likely to be unwitnessed by colleagues. Accordingly, it is important to remind employees of your discrimination and harassment complaint procedure and encourage the prompt reporting of all incidents.
As employers continue to embrace remote and hybrid work, they must be vigilant about how they are actively working to prevent workplace harassment in the home. If your company has any questions about how to best develop, revise, or update anti-harassment trainings and policies in the wake of remote work, please contact the authors of this article or any attorney in Venable's Labor and Employment Group.