Remote Work Reminder: Don’t Lose Sight of Harassment Prevention Training Obligations

Since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the number of employees working remotely increased dramatically —a trend that’s persisting and trending permanent, as Gallup stated in the fall.

With less face-to-face interaction, employers may mistakenly think sexual harassment in the workplace has become less of a risk; but, unfortunately, statistics show that’s not really the case.

In 2020, employers paid out more than $65 million in monetary benefits in sex-based harassment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — the second most in the last decade. And this figure doesn’t include money paid resulting from litigation.

California employers have an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to prevent and immediately correct discriminatory and harassing conduct — and with this permanent shift toward remote work, employers also must be mindful of workplace harassment online. 

Unfortunately, much of the ugliness that fills social media, where some people have a sense of anonymous impunity in their discourse, has spilled over into workplace collaboration platforms.

An extreme example is the New Yorker staff writer who was fired for exposing himself while live on a Zoom meeting, but most instances of inappropriate online behavior — that may be far less jarring and more subtle — can be even more damaging. Research strongly suggests that hostility on the basis of sex and race has moved from the physical workplace to the online world.

“Since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply,” Jennifer Brown, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert told The New York Times. “HR in most workplaces still has not caught up to what virtual forms of misconduct and harassment look and feel like, and there’s a lack of policies and procedures around what is acceptable.”

Efforts must focus on prohibiting all harassment in the workplace, including an employee’s remote work location. Employers are strictly liable for harassing acts committed by supervisors, and they can also be liable for harassing acts committed by employees and even nonemployees. All organizations should prioritize managing this risk and determining if the work culture is allowing or encouraging harassment to occur. 

Also of extreme importance is that California companies with five or more employees are required by law to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisors and one hour to nonsupervisory employees within six months of hire or promotion. Employers must continue to provide training every two years thereafter.

Training also is an essential component of any harassment prevention program — especially when combined with company leadership on these issues. Those at a company’s top management level must not only set the proper tone, but also dedicate the necessary time and resources to meet their prevention obligation and ensure that their efforts are effective. 

Training shouldn’t focus on unlawful conduct; it should help identify and mitigate the type of conduct that could, if allowed to continue, lead to a hostile work environment. 

“Although many employers may still have employees working remotely, either in whole or in part, it’s important not to fall victim to the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality as far as maintaining your affirmative duty to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace and train your employees,” said Bianca N. Saad, vice president of Labor and Employment – Content, Training and Advice for CalChamber. “Just because you can’t see the harassment, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s just as important as ever to keep employees trained and maintain a harassment- and discrimination-free work environment.”

Mike McCluskey, Senior Technical Editor, CalChamber

CalChamber offers interactive online training that fulfills legal compliance obligations for both supervisors and nonsupervisors, and includes compelling, cinema-quality videos based on real-life situations. CalChamber Preferred and Executive Members receive 20 percent off training.Not a member? See what CalChamber can do for you.

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