This article is the second in a three-part series on employees’ rights related to technology use in the office. You can read Part One here.
Technology has completely changed the modern workplace dynamic. As a society, we communicate in a vastly different way compared to how we did twenty or thirty years ago. Where memos were once printed out and passed around the office by hand, the same message is now sent to the entire office with the touch of a button. Indeed, many people simply send emails or text messages instead of walking down the hallway or picking up a phone. The increased ease of mobile communications also provides employees with more flexibility by enabling them to work from almost anywhere.
Yet, while nearly all companies use email to communicate, such technology has increased efficiency while simultaneously causing problems for employers. Sending an email has allowed for many employees to express themselves, through words and pictures, in a way that the employee may feel hesitant to do in person. This has led to many emails being sent that are not appropriate for an office environment.
If sufficiently offensive, an employer may have to cope with workplace harassment claims stemming from such communications. Federal law prohibits discriminatory harassment, i.e. harassment motivated by a protected trait. This protection includes, but is not limited to, harassment on the basis of race, gender, age, or retaliation for engaging in protected conduct. Additionally, an employer may be liable despite not knowing that discrimination had taken place, and despite whether a supervisor or co-worker engaged in the discriminatory conduct.
Harassment may take the form of repeated emails that are sexually explicit, threatening, or otherwise offensive to co-workers or subordinates. The key to preventing such workplace harassment is preemptive action on the part of the employer.
First and foremost, an employer needs effective anti-harassment policies and training for its employees. The size of the company should not play a role in whether these policies are instituted, since harassment can occur in any business. Although federal protection may only occur when an employer has fifteen or more employees, state laws usually cover smaller businesses as well.
Secondly, as discussed last week, employers can prevent such conduct by monitoring devices given to their employees. According to a survey conducted by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute, about forty-three percent of companies monitor employee email, with roughly three-quarters of that portion using technology tools to automatically monitor employee email. Additionally, not all harassment is blatant, so using products that flag key words often do not effectively protect an employer.
An effective attitude toward harassment prevention in the workplace is to assume it will happen. It is best for employers to be proactive, instead of hoping a harassment case does not come their way. If an employer takes the necessary steps, they will then be in a strong position to avoid such harassing conduct and any resultant liability.