Harassment Lawyers: Insights on Remote Work Harassment and Workplace Investigations
The move to remote work has created new forms that sexual harassment can take in the workplace. Remote work can pose unique challenges for employers in preventing and addressing sexual harassment compared to physical workplaces.
As the line between work and personal life continues to blur, it’s important for employers to understand what constitutes sexual harassment in the remote workspace and take proactive steps to protect their employees.
What is Sexual Harassment in the Remote Work Space?
Sexual harassment in the remote workspace encompasses unwanted or vexatious behavior of a sexual nature that causes discomfort, intimidation, or threats to employees. Examples include verbal comments, gestures, and inappropriate digital communication like non-work-related text messages, emails, or social media interactions.
In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) requires employers to protect their employees from workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. The Ontario Human Rights Code(Code) also prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Employers who fail to properly address or investigate physical or remote workplace sexual harassment can be liable for damages for a variety of claims by the employee. Some examples include, but are not limited to:
- Severance entitlements resulting from a constructive dismissal of employment;
- Aggravated and punitive damages; and
- General damages for violations of OHSA and the Code.
The fact that any form of harassment, especially sexual harassment, occurs in an employer’s online space or after work hours does not protect employers from potential vicarious liability. Employers who fail to address or investigate sexual harassment in a remote workspace may have to defend against a civil lawsuit at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, or a Human Rights Application at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Challenges of Investigating Sexual Harassment in the Remote Work Space
Investigating incidents of sexual harassment in the remote workspace poses unique challenges for employers. Identifying and investigating perpetrators can be challenging in the remote working environment due to limited physical evidence or witnesses to incidents. Additionally, employees may be hesitant to report incidents of sexual harassment, especially if they fear not being taken seriously or facing retaliation for reporting the incident.
To address these challenges, employers should have a clear policy on workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. Policies should specify prohibited behaviors, reporting procedures, and the consequences of policy violations. These policies and any updates to them should be made widely available and easily accessible to the employees.
Where an employee reports an instance of sexual harassment, it is also vital to ensure confidentiality is maintained and the employee is reasonably protected from any retaliation. Employers should ensure every allegation is taken seriously and properly investigated.
Employers should consider hiring an independent investigator for sexual harassment allegations in remote workspaces and receive recommendations for further actions.
4 Strategies for Employers
Employers must train employees on policies and educate them about sexual harassment. In Ontario, employers have a legal duty to ensure a safe working environment, including protection from harassment. As remote work is on the rise, employers should update policies to address online harassment. Here are four ways employers can protect their employees from workplace harassment in the age of remote work:
Communicating with employees: Employers must educate employees on workplace harassment, including online incidents, their rights, and acceptable behavior. They should conduct training on updated policies, ensuring employees understand the company’s behavior expectations. Ongoing training should cover recognizing and reporting harassment incidents.
Maintaining up-to-date policies and procedures: To protect employees from online harassment, employers should update policies, establish complaint procedures, and provide technical solutions like email monitoring. Employers can use separate virtual phone numbers for work purposes. Employees should receive a policy guide and acknowledge their understanding. This creates a safe work environment, free from online harassment.
Establish work-life boundaries: Employers should establish clear boundaries between work and non-work hours to prevent harassment. Employers can achieve this by implementing policies that discourage after-hours communication or by implementing a “no contact” policy. Encouraging breaks and self-care promotes mental well-being.
Setting an example: Employers should promote an inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and respects all employees. Training leaders to address discomforting situations is crucial. Creating a supportive, inclusive work environment for all employees, regardless of location, involves valuing differences and promoting teamwork.
How a Harassment Lawyer Can Help
Experiencing workplace harassment, especially in the remote work environment, can be distressing and challenging. Fortunately, harassment lawyers are well-equipped to provide essential assistance and support during such situations. Here are some ways in which a harassment lawyer can help you:
Understanding Your Rights: Harassment lawyers have a deep understanding of the laws and regulations that protect employees from workplace harassment. They can help you understand your legal rights and the protections available to you.
Legal Guidance: A harassment lawyer can provide you with expert legal guidance tailored to your specific situation. They can explain the legal options available to you and guide you on the best course of action.
Investigating Your Case: If you believe you’ve been subjected to harassment, a harassment lawyer can conduct a thorough workplace investigation into your case. They’ll gather evidence, interview witnesses, and build a strong case to support your claims.
Negotiations: In some cases, harassment lawyers can help negotiate to find an amicable resolution to the harassment issue. This may involve settlements, policy changes, or other remedies to stop the harassment.
Legal Representation: If the harassment issue escalates or if negotiations fail, your harassment lawyer can represent you in legal proceedings. They’ll ensure your rights are protected and advocate on your behalf throughout the legal process.
Filing Legal Complaints: Harassment lawyers can assist you in filing formal complaints with the appropriate authorities or agencies, such as human rights commissions or labour boards. They’ll ensure your complaint is complete and in compliance with relevant legal requirements.
Seeking Compensation: If you’ve suffered damages as a result of harassment, a harassment lawyer can help you seek compensation for your losses, including emotional distress, lost wages, and more.
Protecting Your Privacy: Harassment lawyers understand the sensitive nature of harassment cases. They’ll work to protect your privacy and confidentiality throughout the process.
Preventing Retaliation: Harassment lawyers can also advise you on steps to prevent potential retaliation from your employer or coworkers after taking action against workplace harassment.
By seeking the assistance of a harassment lawyer, you can navigate the complexities of remote work harassment and workplace investigations with confidence and ensure that your rights are upheld throughout the process.