The way we communicate with our colleagues, customers and suppliers has changed. COVID-19 and the subsequent move en masse to working from home has triggered a sharp increase in the use of the online meeting and with it comes heightened privacy and discrimination concerns.
Employees are working from their kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms and we are all getting to see much “more” of our colleagues. This increased intimacy may have implications for future employee disputes as privacy and discrimination concerns mount. We have all seen the funny clips of children, pets and half-clothed partners interrupting an online work meeting. The reality is that most employees are having to adjust to inviting their colleagues and managers into their home and their living arrangements.
Risk of possible claims
It is reasonable that some employees working remotely may feel they are more exposed to harassment and possibly discrimination in their employment. Most employees will have clues in their background to an online meeting which reveal whether they are in a relationship and whether they have dependents. If employees have a small space to work from, they may feel they are being judged by their colleagues. By having to share their private life with the office, an employee may inadvertently share insights into their political views, religion, sexual persuasion or disability.
This risk also applies to candidates who are being interviewed via an online meeting. Job applicants are protected under State and Federal laws from unlawful discrimination. It is possible that questions which are prohibited during the recruitment process may well be answered non-verbally during an interview from the candidate's home. If recruitment decisions are made by a prospective employer contrary to the protections afforded under the legislation, a prospective employee may lodge a general protections claim under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).
The overnight evolution to remote working has prompted the need for some employers to monitor their employees more closely, which is likely to cause further privacy and possibly, discrimination concerns. A recent BBC News article reported that companies are monitoring their employees by using Hubstaff software to track their staff's hours, keystrokes, mouse movements and websites visited. Hubstaff which is based in the US said that their revenue from UK companies was up four-fold on 2019. The report also referred to Sneek, a company which supplies the technology to take photos of employees through their laptop. Employers who intend monitoring their employees using similar software will need to comply with the relevant legislation to ensure such surveillance is lawful.
The new virtual workplace comes with new risks and obligations. In many organisations, video conferencing has largely replaced in-person meetings and it is anticipated that this trend is here to stay. Employers need to consider the impact on employee work relationships and ensure that workplace policies are still fit for purpose and relevant training is provided. In particular, HR need to be aware of the increased scope for privacy and discrimination concerns.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.