Many more New York residents are finding themselves working remotely in jobs that used to be 9-5 in an office. You might assume that this social distancing would remove the risks of a hostile work environment. However, sexual harassment can happen in any workplace. Find out what sexual harassment looks like when you work from home.
According to Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment is a form of illegal gender discrimination. It includes unwelcome sexual advances and jokes, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, written, or physical sexual activities. It can include offensive comments and jokes about a person’s sex, or sexual activities.
The law doesn’t protect against every off-color comment, but it does prevent sexual harassment that happens so often or is so severe that it creates a hostile work environment or forces a person out of his or her job. It also prevents “quid pro quo” requests that condition work on agreeing to sexual favors.
Workers who experience these kinds of hostile working conditions can report the sexual harassment to their employer. Title VII and similar state laws require employers to investigate and respond to those reports by taking reasonable steps to stop the harassment. If they ignore it, or worse retaliate against you for filing the complaint, you can take the matter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or your state civil rights office (in New York that is the New York State Human Rights Division).
There is no industry that is entirely safe from sexual harassment. Off-color jokes and unwanted sexual advances can happen on the factory floor, in the back room at a retail store, or in the boardroom of a white collar office. They can even happen between remote workers online.
Because sexual harassment doesn’t have to be physical, the distance between coworkers doesn’t matter. If requests, jokes, or comments are made in a virtual space, you can find yourself being sexually harassed even while you work from home. However, the form virtual sexual harassment takes may be a bit different than gender discrimination in the office or workshop.
Complaints over sexual harassment and gender discrimination don’t have to fit into any specific buckets. Anytime comments or requests are sexual in nature or based on your sex or gender, you have the right to file a complaint with your employer. However, here are some common examples of virtual sexual harassment that can target home-based workers:
Many people working from home right now still live relatively close to their coworkers and bosses. When a supervisor or boss sends you an email or other direct message asking for a “hook up” or for you to come to his or her home for sexual favors, especially if it is implied that saying yes will help you at work, this is a form of sexual harassment. It doesn’t matter if neither of you were ever in the office.
When you and your coworkers work from home, a lot of business happens through text messages and video-conferencing. However, sometimes a coworker may take advantage of knowing your cell phone number or user ID to send unsolicited sexual content. They may even start a video-chat with you for the purpose of exposing themselves to you, or demanding you do the same for them. This is a more severe form of sexual harassment. Even one such event could be enough for an EEOC complaint.
Many companies with remote workers rely on intranets or messaging apps like Slack to stay connected with their employees. Often, these company messaging apps include spaces for work and for “random” or informal dialog. Sexual jokes and off-color comments can flourish in these settings. Because workers are used to the anonymity of the Internet, they may make comments they wouldn’t in face-to-face conversations. Also, a single comment can create ongoing dialog on a similar theme, or can come up again and again as part of an “inside joke”. These kind of repeated casual jokes and comments can add up to sexual harassment when they become so frequent that a reasonable person would find it difficult to do their work, creating a hostile work environment.
However, there is good news about the use of technology to enable employees to work from home. Unlike when you are approached at work, nearly everything that happens online leaves a data trail. That means that sexual harassment targeting remote workers is often easier to prove with a click of a button. If you find yourself the target of sexual harassment, object to it and record it. Download the email, take a screenshot, or document the offensive video. Then provide that documentation to your HR coordinator or supervisor.
If your employer don’t investigate the complaint and take reasonable steps to stop the behavior, contact a sexual harassment attorney. They can help your employer understand their obligations under the law, negotiating for meaningful changes to your digital workplace and advocating on your behalf. If that doesn’t work, you and your lawyer can use that same digital proof to file a complaint with the EEOC, state anti-discrimination agency, or in federal or state court.
The sexual harassment attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, have decades of experience helping the victims of sexual harassment get the compensation they deserve. We know how to apply federal and state anti-discrimination laws to home-based work environments, negotiate with employers using remote workplace models, and help you build your best case. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an employment discrimination attorney.