While the Coronavirus pandemic forced millions to work from home, workplace sexual harassment did not end. Unfortunately, many companies are not taking sexual harassment occurring outside of the physical office seriously. Sexual harassment is still sexual harassment, even if it takes place electronically or over the phone rather than in person.
A female Google engineer in Japan alleges the company did not address her multiple sexual harassment allegations against a male colleague during the pandemic. The company considered the incidents a “private matter” because they did not take place in the office. As a result, the engineer, who has since left Google’s employment, had no choice but to work from home.
Instead of a sanctuary, victims can feel psychologically trapped in their own homes due to ongoing online sexual harassment. Unlike a workplace, there are rarely witnesses to the behavior.
Sexual Harassment Can Thrive Remotely
Remote work can actually increase the risk of sexual harassment. First, employers and employees may not realize that sexual harassment can take place outside of the physical workplace.
There is also the fact that when working from home, employees can access alcohol or other drugs that can cause issues with judgment. Remote work crosses time zones, and as the saying among drinkers goes, “It’s always past 5 o’clock somewhere.” Someone unwinding with a couple of drinks at the end of the work day – let alone a person with alcohol or substance abuse issues – can easily lose inhibitions and type inappropriate messages to colleagues still on the job.
Remote sexual harassment generally involves suggestive comments. Sometimes it is subtle, as when women are requested to look or dress a certain way during a Zoom call. This behavior can create an intimidating or hostile work environment, which falls under the federal definition of sexual harassment.
Harassment can also take place under the guise of communication. For example, one employee might harass another by constantly calling rather than just sending an email.
Not New Behavior
Remote sexual harassment did not start with the pandemic, but forced remote work has exacerbated the situation. The situation is particularly difficult for freelancers since they have no company HR department with whom they can file complaints.
Handling Remote Sexual Harassment
As with physical workplace sexual harassment, keeping careful records of the behavior is key when filing a case. Take screenshots of all relevant messages. While it is crucial to store them digitally, it is also vital to make physical copies of the screenshots in case your computer crashes.
Rarely do HR complaints lead to legal protections against the victim. Retaliation is illegal, but it happens all too often. Consider filing a formal complaint after seeking legal advice.