Sexual Harassment in the Virtual Workplace During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Douglas Lipsky

The use of videoconferencing and other remote technologies has enabled businesses to adapt to their employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the widespread use of these devices has opened the door to potential claims of sexual harassment arising from the virtual workplace. If you have been subjected to sexual harassment during a videoconference or another form of electronic communication, it takes a skilled employment lawyer to protect your rights. 

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is an unlawful form of discrimination under federal, state, and local law, regardless of whether the harassment occurs in person. Generally, there are two types of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer makes a sexual demand as a condition of employment. A hostile environment occurs when unwelcome comments, conduct, or displays make it impossible for an employee to perform his or her duties. 

Online Harassment at Work 

With telecommuting now the “new normal” in New York and across the nation, reports of sexual harassment in the virtual workplace are on the rise. Workplace harassment has always had an online component, however, as harassment has been known to occur via email, text, instant messaging, or chat. And either type of workplace harassment can occur online. 

As an example, quid pro quo harassment may arise when a supervisor refuses to promote an employee unless he or she exchanges lewd photos. Given that employees across all levels of many businesses are telecommuting and using videoconferencing, the virtual workplace can become a hostile environment when employees engage in sexual banter in online spaces. Finally, online workplace harassment can also occur when someone sends unsolicited, offensive materials, images, or videos to a coworker. 

Preventing Virtual Workplace Harassment

Employers in New York have a legal obligation to provide their employees with a work environment free from sexual harassment, including virtual harassment. Therefore, it is critically important for businesses to have clearly defined policies prohibiting sexual harassment, as well as procedures for reporting complaints and potential disciplinary measures. 

Companies in New York are also required to provide annual training in preventing sexual harassment, regardless of whether employees are onsite or working from home. Given the present exigencies, that training should include an explanation of policies specifically directed at the virtual environment. 

In other words, employees should be trained on the proper use of email, chat, videoconferencing, and other forms of electronic communication. A good rule of thumb is to never say anything in an email, text, or another message that you would not want to see on the news. 

Finally, employers also have a responsibility to respond quickly and effectively to complaints, otherwise, they face potential civil liabilities for workplace harassment. By working with an experienced employment law attorney, you can establish effective policies and training programs that will prevent sexual harassment, whether in the office or the virtual workplace. 

Why This Matters

No matter where workplace harassment occurs or what medium is used, employees have powerful recourse under local, state, and federal law. Coping with the pandemic while working from home is challenging enough without the added burden of sexual harassment. If you have been subjected to harassment in the virtual workplace, turn to the employment lawyers at Lipsky Lowe LLP. We will be the strength in your corner and fight to protect your rights.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.