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Online Sexual Harassment: Guidelines For A Remote Workplace

by Rayna Grenon on Jun 8, 2021 5:26:42 AM

While many employees have been telecommuting from home during the pandemic, sexual harassment on the job can still occur even with remote work. In fact, some groups are reporting increases in harassment while working remotely whether due to loneliness, a more casual, relaxed environment, or the absence of a physical management presence to step in. As an employer, it’s crucial to make sure you’re complying with sexual harassment laws even when your workers are off site or you could face costly fines, legal fees, and damages.

At Complete Payroll Solutions, our HR professionals have been guiding employers on how to comply with employment laws and regulations for over 18 years. We understand the nuances of the sexual harassment rules you need to navigate on both a federal and state level in order to avoid penalties for noncompliance. To help you understand how to ensure a harassment-free remote work environment for your employees, here we’ll cover:

  • What is digital sexual harassment
  • What laws govern remote sexual harassment
  • How can I prevent remote sexual harassment

After reading this article, you’ll know how to reduce your risk and ensure a safe, respectful environment for your employees, no matter where they’re located.

What is online sexual harassment?

Online sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome verbal or visual conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of any actual or perceived protected characteristic or has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. This type of behavior can take place over text, email, app, or video conferencing.

Examples of inappropriate verbal conduct include:

  • Slurs
  • Jokes
  • Insults
  • Epithets
  • Gestures
  • Teasing

Visual sexual harassment can include offensive:

  • Posters
  • Symbols
  • Cartoons
  • Drawings
  • Computer displays
  • Text messages, including GIFs or emojis
  • Social media posts
  • Emails

Sexual harassment also includes other unwelcome conduct, such as unwelcome or unsolicited sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, conversations regarding sexual activities and other verbal, visual conduct of a sexual nature when:

  • submission to that conduct or those advances or requests is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; or
  • submission to or rejection of the conduct or advances or requests by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual; or
  • the conduct or advances or requests have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.

What laws govern remote sexual harassment?

The same anti-harassment laws apply whether employees are in person or remote. On a federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers in companies with 15 or more employees from sexual harassment. Covered employers are required to provide a work environment that is free from harassment and other kinds of discrimination. Under the law, while the action of sexual harassment is not illegal, it is illegal for employers to allow it to occur or to stop it once they know it’s happening. It’s important to note that the victim of sexual harassment doesn’t have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct, including witnesses or bystanders.

Some states also have laws that provide further protection. For example, in California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act applies to all employers in the state, not just those with 15 or more employees, and requires that they take steps to prevent it from happening.

Other states require sexual harassment training, including several in the Northeast:

Even if you’re not covered by any of the anti-harassment laws because of your size or location, it’s important to keep in mind that harassment of any kind is never acceptable in the workplace and can land you in hot water.

How can I prevent online sexual harassment?

To avoid potential problems, you need to make sure your expectations are clear. Here are some steps to prevent online sexual harassment in your business:

  • Inform employees that harassment is prohibited
  • Have a Non-Harassment Policy and training that includes: what constitutes unacceptable behavior, what actions are prohibited and disciplinary consequences for misconduct   
  • Identify who employees should contact to discuss harassment questions or concerns and make sure employees know the procedures
  • Assure employees that they will not be punished for asking questions or sharing their concerns
  • Respond to harassment questions or concerns and investigate harassment complaints promptly and effectively
  • Ensure that managers and employees understand their responsibility to stop, address and prevent harassment

There are also some tips you can share with employees to help make the remote work environment safer:

  • Suggest they use virtual backgrounds so that personal items remain private
  • Encourage them to dress professionally even in a casual setting
  • Remind them that they should refrain from being informal in interactions with co-workers
  • Explain the importance of thinking before speaking and if a joke or comment seems inappropriate, it’s best to refrain from saying it

How to Create a Harassment-free Remote Workplace

Remote work has blurred the lines between personal and professional lives. However, employees off-site have the same right to a harassment-free workplace as those working in person. To create a safe, respectful environment, it’s important that all employees understand acceptable standards for conduct.

Complete Payroll Solutions can help companies comply with the law and set themselves up for success by providing:

  • Trainings: We offer live and self-paced online trainings that meet the requirements of state laws, where applicable.
  • Policies: Our HR professionals can develop a compliant non-harassment policy that addresses your unique workforce as well as others that can reduce the likelihood of online sexual harassment such as those regarding standard of conduct or electronic communications.
  • Handbooks: Complete Payroll Solutions can develop or update your employee handbook, and all of the handbooks we create include a compliant policy with a sign-off  page.
  • Investigations: We can also help with compliant and thorough investigations of sexual harassment complaints to take the burden off you and ensure investigations aren’t biased in any way.

Read our next article on the essentials of an employee handbook for more about how to avoid harassment in a work-from-home environment and reduce your risk of fines, penalties, and lawsuits.


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