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What Employers Need to Know About Potential Workplace Harassment Amid COVID-19

Introduction

In light of the recent global pandemic, many employers have ramped up health and safety measures to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus. While elevating these measures is both encouraged and necessary, employers should not let other workplace preventative measures fall by the wayside. Employers may need to reevaluate current anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to ensure that they are protecting employees from discrimination and harassment while working remotely. Even while working remotely, employers must address all employee concerns regarding the same.

Growing concerns over online harassment

With the recent shift to working remotely, both employers and employees need to be careful of employees’ online work presence. While in-office harassment, such as unwanted physical contact, may have decreased during this time, some employees are turning to online sources to harass their co-workers. Such methods may include instant messaging, video chat, or email. If employees are facing harassment while working remotely, they must follow their employer’s procedures in reporting the harassment, and there may be legal ramifications for such discriminatory or harassing conduct.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) makes discrimination and harassment unlawful on the basis of race, gender, religion, and national origin, even when employees are working remotely. Should an employee find him or herself facing unwanted discrimination or harassment online, that employee should immediately inform his or her supervisor.

Online investigations

Even while working remotely, employers are obligated to promptly and thoroughly investigate all claims of workplace discrimination or harassment. While these investigations may now have to be conducted differently than employers are used to, they must still occur. Employers can conduct interviews with the complainant, alleged harasser, and any witnesses over the telephone or through videoconferencing. Additionally, all physical evidence, such as text messages, emails, phone records, or other related documents, can be compiled through online means.

There are some concerns relating to the reliability of online investigations. However, in some ways, online investigations may prove to be more helpful than worksite investigations. While employers will not be able to check a witness’s credibility through body language and eye contact, some employees may be more honest discussing the situation over the phone or via video. Employees may be more honest through the phone or online because any perceived concerns or anxieties about discussing the situation in person are removed. Regardless, employers must do whatever they can with their available resources to ensure that employees are being afforded the full benefit of the employer’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Online training

While some companies are facing a slower pace at work, employers are encouraged to use this time to brush up on their policies and conduct online training for their employees. This is especially true for smaller companies that may not require periodic anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training.

If you feel your employment rights have been violated, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724.