What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like in a Remote Workplace?

Doug Mann

The shift toward remote work that dramatically accelerated in 2020 offered many benefits.  Eliminating commutes and travel expenses, reduced child care expenses, and reduced dry cleaning budgets are just a few examples. Some employees might have anticipated another benefit: an end to sexual harassment. 

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Table of Contents
  1. Remote Workplace Harassment
  2. Employers Can Help Curb Sexual Harassment – Even if You Work From Home
  3. Talk to a Sexual Harassment Attorney as Soon as Possible

Unfortunately, it appears that sexual harassers and other workplace bullies and abusers have found ways to adapt. In a few situations, the remote work set-up may even be making harassment easier.

Remote Workplace Harassment

38% of respondents to one 2021 survey said they’d still experienced workplace harassment while working remotely. This harassment took place across a variety of channels, including email, video conferencing, chat apps and telephone.

In response to another survey conducted about the same time by Project Include, 26% of workers said they’d seen an increase in gender-based harassment after the shift to remote work. Notably, 40% of women, gender-queer, and non-binary workers said they’d experienced increased harassment. All groups also reported a perceived increase in race/ethnicity-based hostility. 

Some examples include: 

  • Inappropriate jokes, memes, or images shared through email or messaging, including sexually explicit content and content denigrating women or a certain racial or ethnic group
  • Suggestive comments or solicitations through chat, private messaging, or phone
  • Denigrating sexist comments in a video conference or one-on-one discussion, whether directed at an individual or generalized to a group
  • Sharing of or solicitation of inappropriate or explicit photographs

These are just a few examples of the type of harassment that may occur in a remote work environment. The general rule is simple, though: if it would have been unacceptable to walk over and show someone a picture in the office, it’s almost certainly not okay to send it to a co-worker in chat. The same applies to sexual advances, off-color comments, denigrating women, and other behaviors. 

Experts have offered several possible explanations for this increase in sexual harassment and other forms of harassment, including: 

  • Increased stress and anxiety since the pandemic started in 2020
  • Lack of immediate access of managers when incidents occur, making it more difficult for those who have been harassed to reach out naturally
  • The general tendency we see in social media, where people sending links, memes, and other messages feel less constraints than most due in live conversation
  • More isolated communications meaning there are fewer witnesses to deter unacceptable behavior, report, or lend support when harassment occurs
  • Employers haven’t necessarily established clear standards and processes for remote interactions as they may have for in-office conduct

Whatever the reason, sexual harassment and other types of workplace harassment are no more acceptable in a remote setting than they are in the office. Some might assume that this behavior is less harmful remotely, since there’s no physical presence. But, sexual harassment is sexual harassment. For some, this type of harassment may be even more stressful, since it’s spilling into the victim’s home. 

Employers Can Help Curb Sexual Harassment – Even if You Work From Home

In some cases, employers simply haven’t caught up to remote working and the differing challenges it presents. Even those with clear sexual harassment policies and reporting procecures may have failed to take simple steps like explicitly notifying employees that the standards remain in effect while they’re working from home, or provided a clear process for reporting when working remotely. 

If your employer hasn’t done these things or isn’t responding appropriately to sexual harassment reports, it’s important that you know your rights and how to assert them. 

Next Steps for Victims of Sexual Harassment

In most situations, you’ll need to report sexual harassment to your manager or to your company’s human resources department or other designated person. A company generally isn’t liable for harassment if management was unaware of the problem and couldn’t have been reasonably expected to know about it.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment–remote or otherwise–begin by documenting as much as possible. Create a list that includes information such as: 

  • When and where an incident occurred (including the communication channel if remote)
  • What exactly happened or was said (including the actual communication or image if sent electronically or still in your possession)
  • Who else was present and witnessed the incident

Once you have your thoughts and documentation organized, follow your company’s procedure for reporting. This information should be available in your employee handbook or other employee resources, such as a company Wiki. If you can’t find the information you need about how and to whom you should report sexual harassment, talk to your immediate supervisor or your human resources department.

If your immediate supervisor is the person harassing you or is part of the problem (such as having witnessed harassment and let it slide, or dismissing your complaints), go further up the chain of command or to human resources. 

What Happens After Reporting? 

Ideally, your employer will review your complaint, investigate, and take action to stop the harassment. But, that doesn’t always happen. Some employers don’t take sexual harassment seriously, or take only token disciplinary measures that don’t put an end to the harassment. In some situations, a mild or obligatory rebuke to the harasser can make things worse. 

If you don’t get the help you need when you follow your company’s procedure for reporting harassment and requesting action, you still have options. 

Ohio employees have two paths to seeking relief or compensation when they’re being sexually harassed at work or have been forced to leave a job due to the impact of sexual harassment

  1. Reporting discriminatory practices to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC). 

If you’re planning to file a lawsuit based on violations of the state Fair Employment Practices Law, you must first file a complaint with the OCRC. This complaint must be filed within 180 days. 

When you report violations of Ohio law to the OCRC, the agency will typically offer mediation services. If mediation fails, the OCRC will open an investigation and determine whether or not to pursue a complaint against your employer. If they decide not to pursue the claim, they’ll issue you a “right to sue” letter. 

  1. Reporting violations of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

An expert tip from Doug Mann

The EEOC process is similar to the OCRC process. The deadline for filing in most situations is also 180 days, and you must file a complaint with the EEOC and wait to see whether they intend to pursue a claim before you can file a federal lawsuit. 

Talk to a Sexual Harassment Attorney as Soon as Possible

The 180-day cut-off for both the OCRC and the EEOC is much shorter than the typical statute of limitations for a lawsuit. If you’ve been harassed in the workplace, whether while working remotely or in the office, it’s in your best interest to get advice and guidance right away. 

You can schedule a free consultation with one of the experienced Ohio sexual harassment lawyers at Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz, L.P.A. right now. Just call 937-222-2222 or fill out the contact form on this page to get started.

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