Employers across the US are requiring employees to return to the brick and mortar workplace as COVID cases drop, and are looking forward to having employees work together again face-to-face. But employers beware: employees have had little in-person interaction with their colleagues over the past two years, and some employees who were onboarded during the pandemic have only met their coworkers virtually. Employees returning in-person may be rusty when it comes to interacting with others in the same physical space, increasing the risk that lines will be crossed into inappropriate or unlawful behavior. What should employers do as employees return to the office to try to keep claims of discrimination and harassment to a minimum?
Update the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
With a focus on health and safety measures such as mask mandates and vaccine policies for the last two years, updating anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies may not have been front of mind. But employers should review and update these policies now to ensure they comply with any newer laws in the jurisdictions where they have employees-such as Illinois’ Public Act 102-0419, effective January 1, 2022, which specifies that disability discrimination in Illinois now includes discrimination against an individual because of their association with a person with a disability. Updated policies should be distributed to employees, who should be required to acknowledge in writing that they have received and understand them.
Train employees that the company prohibits discrimination and harassment–and requires respect
Employers should also train employees on the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies-especially before employees who have been working remotely for months or years return-to increase awareness of what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior. In one study, employees who received sexual harassment training were more likely to indicate that unwanted sexual gestures, touching, and pressure for dates are sexual harassment. Awareness of what is considered unacceptable behavior can help employees think twice before acting, and training showing specific examples of discrimination and harassment-such as actors portraying behavior that could be discrimination or harassment-may help employees understand behavioral boundaries.
Employers should ensure the training covers “to the moment issues” related to discrimination and harassment that may impact the workplace. For example, on March 18, 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act) which would prohibit discrimination based upon hairstyles in employment (as well as in public accommodations, housing, and other venues). Several states already have similar laws in place, including California, New York, Washington and Delaware. Even if the CROWN Act stalls at the federal level, training employees to respect each other-including each other’s hairstyles-can reduce complaints of discrimination.
Another example is microaggressions in the workplace. A recent Future Forum study indicated that only 3% of Black professional workers (compared with 21% of white professional workers) wanted to return to the office full time post-pandemic, after finding they faced fewer microaggressions from colleagues while working remotely. Aside from diversity and inclusion training (which many employers offer to employees), training all employees on the importance of respect in the workplace can keep all employees feeling welcome, included and valuable-whether they’re working remotely or in-person.
Employers should also ensure the training:
- Explains the company’s structure for reporting concerns of discrimination or harassment
- Emphasizes that the company prohibits retaliation for making reports or participating in workplace investigations of alleged harassment or discrimination
- Describes the steps the company takes when handling complaints, and
- Reminds employees they are subject to discipline for violation of the company’s policies relating to harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.
Some jurisdictions, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New York State and New York City require employers to train employees on workplace harassment. But even if training is not required, employers should train employees before they return to the office-and regularly thereafter-to remind employees what inappropriate behavior looks like, how to report it, and the consequences for not following company policy.