Sexual Harassment Happens in the Virtual Workplace, Too

Sexual Harassment Happens in the Virtual Workplace, Too

Remote work is here to stay. Businesses left with no choice but to find ways to survive during the pandemic turned to virtual technologies to keep them on course. After some initial growing pains, many businesses see little reason to backtrack now that their employees have adapted to staying productive via Zoom, Slack, and GoToMeeting (to name just a few popular virtual work tools). Workers like the flexibility of the virtual workplace, and businesses have warmed to the savings they can realize on rent, utilities, and other overhead when their employees work remotely. 

The accelerated transition to working virtually has not, however, eliminated problems that have long plagued the workplace. Instead, the new work format has merely evolved new ways for employees to misbehave. 

Sexual harassment, in particular, continues to intrude on the lives of workers everywhere. If anything, its devastating, disruptive effects can now reach further into employees’ lives than ever, because when it happens remotely it can find its victims anywhere they use a screen. 

Let’s take a look at some emerging types of sexual harassment in the virtual workplace, and how a skilled business and employment lawyer can help enterprises and victimized employees address them. 

Sexual Harassment Overview

To quote the Office of the California Attorney General, workplace sexual harassment consists of “unwelcome sexual advances, or other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee’s sex.” Sexual harassment is a form of illegal discrimination barred by state and federal civil rights laws. 

Under California law, conduct constituting sexual harassment is illegal even if it is not motivated by sexual desire. It is equally unacceptable when instead motivated by actual or perceived sex or gender-identity, actual or perceived sexual orientation, or by an employee’s pregnancy, childbirth, or related health condition. 

Sexual Harassment in Virtual Spaces

You don’t have to spend much time online to know that the virtual world is rife with offensive sexual material and conduct. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that virtual workplace sexual harassment has emerged so readily as work spaces have increasingly come to resemble internet spaces. 

But that does not make it any less damaging for workers and the businesses that employ them. The following conduct constitutes sexual harassment that, while virtual in its medium, is undeniably real and devastating in its effect on employees and employers.

Sending Sexually Offensive Messages  

A fast-growing segment of today’s workforce uses text-based messaging applications as its default mode of work and personal communication. The convenience and familiarity of messaging tools, and the text and emoji-based shorthand that have evolved from them, can foster sexually offensive behavior. Sexual harassment can occur when co-workers send or share messages containing crude jokes, innuendo, sexual double-meanings, and emoji with suggestive or explicit connotations. 

Sharing Sexually Offensive Imagery

The internet-age adage that if something exists, then so does internet pornography related to it, translates into real and persistent problems in virtual workplaces. The tools businesses have adopted to foster productivity, like messaging and team-working applications, are designed to make sharing imagery effortless. Unfortunately, that means it is also easy for a sexually offensive meme, .gif, video, or still image to make the rounds of a workplace, creating a hostile, sexually-inappropriate environment that harms employees and employers alike. 

Video Meeting-Related Misconduct

We have all laughed at now-(in)famous Zoom-meeting mishaps from early in the pandemic when everyone was still adjusting to work-from-home. However, thinking of video conferences gone awry only in terms of those lighthearted moments ignores a troubling and increasingly-common downside of meeting virtually.

To start, video conferencing applications can facilitate the types of offensive messaging and image-sharing discussed above. In addition, they can also become an outlet through which employees make unwanted sexual advances, mock or gang-up on a co-worker, attend meetings from inappropriate settings, wear offensive attire, and even expose themselves.

Additionally, video conferencing with work-from-home employees raises the specter of unwelcome intrusions on employee privacy. Commenting on items seen in the background of another co-worker’s at-home work space, for example, or taking and sharing screenshots of co-workers participating in meetings, can constitute illegal harassment.

Problematic 24/7 Access to Subordinates

In pre-smartphone times, leaving work for the day essentially severed communication between bosses and their subordinates until the following morning. That changed once everyone began carrying devices that ran email, messaging, and document management apps that enabled employers to demand their employees’ attention at all hours.

The move to remote work and its exclusive reliance on virtual technologies has pushed that trend into overdrive, resulting in a rise in sexually-tinged violations of employee boundaries. For example, routinely and knowingly sending messages to a subordinate during times the subordinate has set aside for personal activities that are arguably tied to sex or gender, such as going on a date or attending a pregnancy-related doctor appointment, can constitute sexually harassing behavior.  

How Business and Employment Lawyers Can Help

Employees who have been on the receiving-end of sexually harassing behavior in virtual workspaces, or who have suffered from a sexually hostile virtual workplace culture, may have the right to receive compensation for the harm they have endured. An experienced employment lawyer can advise them of their rights and options for taking legal action, and can seek compensation on their behalf if they decide to do so.

Businesses contending with virtual workplace sexual harassment can also benefit from timely, sophisticated legal advice. An experienced business and employment attorney can help business leaders craft legally-appropriate responses to instances of virtual workplace sexual harassment, and can work with them to develop policies and procedures aimed at eliminating sexual misconduct from their workforce. 

Perkins Asbill helps employees and employers alike in tackling the legal and practical challenges of virtual workplace sexual harassment. We advocate for employees in California who have suffered harm from sexual harassment in workplaces both physical and virtual. We also advise small and mid-sized Sacramento-area businesses on how to keep their brick-and-mortar and online workspaces free of sexual misconduct. 

To learn more about how we can help you address virtual workplace sexual harassment, contact us online or call us at 916-446-2000 today.