Tips for handling discrimination and harassment reports in remote and online environments

Fingers typing fast on keyboard

Now more than ever, employers are facing difficult decisions concerning workforce operations. Arguably, their most immediate attention is directed to on-site safety protocols, remote workforce policies, information and data security, and what to communicate to employees about vaccination expectations.

In addition to these time-and attention-consuming obligations, savvy employers are also keeping up with their evolving expectations on the civil rights front. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court settled, once and for all, that gender identity and sexual orientation are protected “sex-based” characteristics under federal law in the landmark case of Bostock v. Clayton County. Employers in the education sector have, arguably, even greater expectations under Title IX regulations that went into effect in 2020 and that provide heightened due process protections and grievance procedures for addressing complaints of sexual harassment that meet certain thresholds in education programs and activities.

Virtual environments can create real problems

Employers have more employees working remotely and online than ever before. This new reality comes with “pros” and “cons,” of which anyone who has participated in a “Zoom” conference call knows all too well. Granted, many employers are taking advantage of opportunities to reduce overhead with less workers on-site. They might even take this time to table certain priorities, like annual reviews, in order to focus on the more pressing issues of the day. However, we caution employers from taking too lax an approach on policies and training concerning harassment and discrimination.

In fact, employers should brace for increased reports of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation across the board. This might fairly be attributed to shifts in societal norms resulting from the #MeToo movement, ongoing socio-political unrest in the aftermath of the most recent election, and anticipation about what is to come out of the Biden-Harris administration. In any event, there is likely to be confusion about the role of employers in addressing harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in remote and online environments. Furthermore, there is likely to be disconnect concerning the standards of behavior that warrant disciplinary action and the severity of same.

Takeaways and tips for employers

Employers must be prepared to address harassment and discrimination in virtual environments. Just as an employer is obligated to address discriminatory and harassing behavior in the office and meeting rooms, so too must employers address these behaviors when they take place in virtual chat rooms and online messenger platforms. Likewise, an employer’s duty to disseminate policies, train employees and managers, and address reports of harassment, discrimination and retaliation remains in effect during these trying times.

On top of everything else, this can quickly become an overwhelming task, whether you are starting from scratch or you already have a robust policy and training system in place. The following list will help you evaluate the strength of your current efforts and identify areas of risk in need of more immediate attention.

  • Review workplace policies, procedures, and training protocols to ensure that they are compliant with federal, state and local laws. For example, definitions of sex-based discrimination must include the expanded definition of sex-based discrimination under Bostock to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Likewise, examples of prohibited conduct should include behavior applicable to these protected classes.
  • Ensure that harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policies address behavior that is prohibited in remote and/or virtual environments. This includes relevant examples of quid pro quo and hostile environment behaviors that may transpire via email, Zoom meeting or group chat, for example.
  • Ensure policies and procedures are disseminated effectively and are reliably accessible to employees and managers. Consider how existing, new, and recently promoted employees are informed and reminded of their rights and obligations under your policies.
  • Ensure that employees and managers have reliable access to reporting mechanisms. Consider whether reports may be made remotely, afterhours, as well as how you will ensure such reports are promptly funneled to a reliable primary (and back up) responder. 
  • Ensure that employees and managers can access and participate in your grievance process no matter where they may be working. Consider how meeting with an investigator can be effectuated privately and reasonably comfortably at a distance. Consider the frequency and medium of status updates to ensure a reasonable connection with distanced employees.
  • Prepare to adapt interim and outcome remedies to fit the unique circumstances of the working environment. For example, an offer to separate adverse parties by changing work schedules may look different when interaction takes place online. 
  • Maintain regular training initiatives. Consider how to adopt (or adapt) training that is relevant, effective, and as preventative as possible. This may prove especially challenging where the threshold of actionable “discriminatory” or “harassing” conduct is inconsistent with social and cultural norms, which can vary among and between your constituents. For example, does your training cover how to handle reports of verbal conduct that is subjectively offensive, but does not rise to the level of objectively limiting access to the workplace?
  • Consider how to meet your legal requirements while balancing your commitment to diversity and inclusion. “Diversity and inclusion” efforts can be perceived, but are not required, to be at odds with legal thresholds and compliance-based objectives. For example, the EEOC recommends bystander intervention and civility policies and training as a means of addressing “lower-level” behaviors and preventing them from becoming bigger problems. When implemented effectively, employees and managers are engaged on the front end and empowered to maintain a safe and productive work environment by holding each other accountable.

No doubt, the pandemic has added layers of complexity to the already controversial topics of harassment and discrimination. A step too far in any direction is likely to land employers in the crosshairs of increasingly litigious situations. Whether you are looking for general practice tips or guidance on an issue particular to your workforce, we highly recommend consulting an attorney or other qualified expert to ensure that you have a workable system in place to meet the needs of your employees in the coming year.

McAfee & Taft offers both virtual and live employment law training to companies and organizations of all sizes.  For more information, contact your McAfee & Taft Labor & Employment attorney.