Remote work has upended most employees’ work routines and feels like both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, workers no longer have to worry about long commutes, weather conditions, or dressing up (for the most part). On the other hand, a more relaxed, physically-distance workplace can create conditions for unlawful harassment.
In a recent report, an EEOC task force noted that when workplaces are decentralized or remote, employees can feel unaccountable for their behavior and mistakenly believe that the standard workplace policies and behavioral expectations don’t apply. When you add those mistaken employee beliefs to the increased stress from COVID-19, relaxed monitoring and policing of staff conduct, and the decreased civility of online spaces in general, you create the perfect conditions for a remote workplace to become a hostile one.
If you feel you have been the victim of harassing conduct while working remotely, here’s what you need to know to be vigilant in protecting your rights.
Understanding Digital Harassment
Unlawful harassment is any unwelcome conduct based on a victim’s membership in a protected class such as age, disability, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. Unlawful harassment becomes digital when employees are subjected to that unwelcome conduct online.
Digital harassment can take many forms. Some of the most common displays are inappropriate jokes or comments in employee emails or chat messages, sexual or racial innuendo in online employee forums, and the distribution of offensive photos, gifs, or memes based on protected characteristics. Digital harassment also can take the form of exclusion or ridicule, such as intentionally muting individuals during web conferences or defacing profile pictures.
When Does Digital Harassment Become Hostile
If digital harassment becomes so severe or pervasive that it alters the terms of a victim’s employment, then the workplace has become a hostile one. Generally, an isolated incident of verbal harassment won’t meet the legal standard for a hostile work environment. However, there is no magic number of harassing incidents that create hostile working conditions, particularly when it comes to remote work. Because working from home is so new in most work cultures, there may be a single incident of digital harassment that is so severe that a court finds that it meets the legal standard.
How to Fight Digital Harassment While Working Remotely
Whether you are working in the office or remotely, the legal standard for a hostile work environment is the same. An employee must prove that she believed her work environment was hostile and that a reasonable person would feel threatened or abused by the offensive conduct as well. Gathering the evidence necessary to meet this legal standard is no easy undertaking, particularly if you have to interact online with the perpetrators every day.
To put yourself in the best position possible:
- Make sure you preserve the evidence that you have. Keep a record even if your harasser asks you to delete messages. And be mindful that sometimes chat messages can disappear after time passes, so take screenshots.
- Do your best to remain professional and stay calm. Object if you feel comfortable doing so.
- Finally, if you believe that you are a victim of workplace harassment, the best way to protect your rights is to contact an experienced employment attorney. A seasoned attorney can evaluate your remote work conditions and help you decide what to do next based on your individual circumstances.
Has your remote working conditions become unlawfully hostile? Livelihood Law is here to help. Contact us today and let us help you fight back.