In the age of Zoom meetings and phone conferences, employers might mistakenly believe that workplace harassment is the last thing they need to worry about during a pandemic. However, these employers would be gravely mistaken.
Despite the social or more appropriately physical distancing brought upon by safer at home orders, harassment in the workplace continues. Working from home does not protect workers from harassment as in recent years a majority of harassment has migrated onto a digital platform.
Tittle VII of the Civil Rights Act obligates employers to shield their workers from harassment that targets certain protected traits; these traits can include race, religion and sex. Therefore, even if a racially charged joke was sent in a messaging app, or a degrading comment about a certain religion was sent out on an email, or even a more brazen example like sexting ever occurs in the workplace, the workers and employers must realize that despite its digital format, it is still harassment.
Concurrently, workers must also be cautious about how they are communicating with co-workers. It is common for workers to loose a sense of professionalism on digital platforms. For instance, in a group chat certain boundaries can be lost as co-workers converse more freely with each other. Thus, harassment in a group chat can be mistaken as mere jokes or “bonding experiences.” This loss of professionalism might only increase in a pandemic as many workers have reported working in pajamas and in their beds.
If a complaint is thus presented to an employer the best advice attorneys have is for employers to investigate. Investigating is an obligation that does not disappear, not even in a pandemic.
Robin Shea, a partner from Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete LLP recommends for remote investigations to conduct interviews of all involved. Yet, Shea’s biggest piece of advice is for interviews to be conducted over the phone and not on Zoom. Worker on Zoom, due to either embarrassment or cultural background, might avoid eye contact and generally display uncomfortable body language, which can confuse the investigation. However, over the phone workers tend to talk more freely and be more forthcoming.
The last piece of advice employers can benefit from is that, counterintuitively, a pandemic might present the perfect time for anti-harassment training. Training now, during the COVID-19 crisis, can allow businesses to not loose hours training once regular production returns. Moreover, online training through the same online tools used for work, can increase levels of professionalism and curtail workplace harassment.
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