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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a fundamental shift in the American workplace.  With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a 14.7% unemployment rate, more Americans are unemployed now than at any time since the Great Depression.  With the exception of essential industries, those employers who are still in business have transitioned their operations to function remotely.  While this may bring a certain amount of respite for employees—no commute, no business casual attire, the ability to work from the couch—challenges faced in the office can follow workers home.    

Can sexual harassment in the workplace persist after going remote?

A workplace culture that permits sexual harassment does not simply vanish when employees shift from the conference room to Zoom.  The venue for inappropriate communication or behavior may be different, but, unfortunately, the opportunities are still present.  There are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo (which is Latin for “this for that” and refers to when it is used as a bargaining tool) and hostile work environment.

What does sexual harassment in the remote workplace look like?

Unwanted physical touching is taken out of the equation when working from home, but the law does not limit where sexual harassment in the workplace can physically take place.    Videoconferences, a common meeting platform in the work from home world, may, in fact, embolden harassers to act out, providing a virtual barrier between them and their target.  Inappropriate exposure, for instance, whether intentional or seemingly mistaken, may be even more easily facilitated through a video call than in real life. 

Communicating through informal channels—such as Slack or Google Chat—may bring a greater possibility of inappropriate comments, bargaining, or flirting.  Harassment can easily fly under the radar when comments are being made through private message rather than in the break room.  Phone calls or messages made after hours may also go over the line.  The casual nature of texting, calling, and videoconferences can have the effect of breaking down professional boundaries of communication, and facilitate illegal behavior.   

What should you do if you experience sexual harassment in the remote workplace?

If you find yourself subject to sexual harassment when working remotely, it is important to document the conduct, which may include filing a complaint with your supervisor or your company’s Human Resources (HR) department.  Take screenshots, save emails and messages.  Many instances of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported, whether work is performed in the office or remotely.  Sometimes the perpetrator is the individual to whom a complaint would typically be filed; sometimes companies do not have an HR department; sometimes the victim is afraid to lose their job.  Seeking out someone trustworthy to disclose the situation to is a good first step to combatting harassment. 

Unfortunately, the bystander effect also persists in the remote workplace, so it is important to speak up if you notice inappropriate behavior toward others.  Consider whose voices dominate conversations and whether certain ones have retreated—a common way to cope with harassment is to withdraw.  If you notice harassing behavior or experience it yourself, report the harassment through the proper channels based on your company’s policies and document it through screenshots or emails to your personal account detailing any incidents.      

An employee may be able to take legal action.  Just one incident can be enough to have a legal claim depending on the egregiousness of the conduct.  In Massachusetts, it is illegal to terminate an employee for making complaints about sexual harassment, so do not let that fear deter you from speaking up.  If you are terminated for making such a complaint, a separate legal claim of retaliation would result.  If you been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible.    

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