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Why Sexual Harassment Is Still an Issue in the Remote Workplace

By Tom McKinney
NJ Employment Attorney

Technological advances like cloud-based applications and video conferences have made remote work possible for many people. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move by many workers from in-house to online. Currently, 58% of workers have the opportunity to work remotely at least one day a week.

But while remote work has made work easier, less stressful, and more efficient, it has not made work safer. Some employees still face sexual harassment even after moving out of the office.

Here are some reasons why sexual harassment is still an issue in the remote workplace and what you can do about it.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination based on sex. The theory is that sexual harassment results in unequal treatment of employees based on their sex, sexual orientation, or gender.

Both U.S. and New Jersey civil rights laws prohibit employment discrimination based on sex. In New Jersey, employment laws prohibit two types of sexual harassment:

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo happens when someone at work offers employment opportunities, but only if you provide some sexual favor. The opportunity could be almost anything job-related, including:

  • Training
  • Travel 
  • Promotion
  • Pay raise
  • Different assignment
  • Location or route changes

Quid pro quo harassment can also happen when a work colleague threatens to take away a job opportunity if you refuse to provide the sexual favor. 

The colleague does not need to make an explicit threat. It just needs to be clear enough that a reasonable person would interpret it as a threat.

This type of harassment covers a broad range of sexual favors, including asking for:

  • Sex
  • Physical contact, like a massage, hug, or, kiss
  • A date
  • Sexually explicit photos or videos

To qualify as quid pro quo harassment, the actions of the perpetrator must subject the victim to unwelcome sexual advances. If both workers have a consensual relationship, the law might not consider the advances “unwelcome.”

Quid pro quo sexual harassment can still happen in a remote work environment. Emails, phone calls, text messages, and video conferences provide a vehicle for delivering the harassing offer or threat.

The law does not require a prohibited sexual favor to happen in the workplace. A job opportunity conditioned on a meeting at a hotel or a date at a restaurant qualifies as quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile Work Environment

The second type of sexual harassment happens when your employer creates or allows others to create a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment occurs when you get subjected to pervasive or unwanted sexual conduct that results in abusive working conditions.

A single incident of unwelcome sexual conduct probably does not qualify as a hostile work environment. But if you report the conduct and your employer fails to stop it from happening again, you might have a hostile work environment. 

Sexual conduct may include:

  • Dirty jokes
  • Comments about your appearance
  • Conversations about sexual topics
  • Unwanted sexual advances or touching
  • Pornography in the workplace

Again, these harassing actions can happen just as easily in a remote work environment as in a physical workspace. 

A harasser can engage in sexual conversations or make sexual comments in text messages, phone calls, or video conferences. Explicit emails might circulate among employees. A coworker might even flash you during a Zoom meeting.

When this behavior is so pervasive that it affects your working conditions, you may have a claim for hostile work environment and sexual harassment.

The Role of an Employment Lawyer

The advantage you have in your remote work environment is that you can collect evidence. Save the emails, messages, photos, and videos you receive and capture screenshots of any harassing behavior.

Report the behavior to your human resources department and contact a lawyer. Most lawyers offer free consultations to new clients. The lawyer can review your evidence and assess your case for sexual harassment.

To discuss sexual harassment you have experienced in your remote job, contact NJ Employment Lawyers. Our New Jersey law firm focuses its practice on employment law and can help you determine whether you have an employment discrimination case based on sexual harassment.

About the Author
Tom McKinney is a skilled employment law attorney with New Jersey Employment Lawyers LLC. He has a track record of success in all areas of employment law, including sexual harassment, discrimination, harassment, wrongful discharge, whistleblower claims and hostile work environment claims. Besides litigation, Tom handles severance agreements and severance package reviews/negotiations for over 100 people each year. If you have any questions regarding this blog, contact Tom here.