Employees who return to the workplace after months of teleworking in the comfort of their own homes will likely be anxious about working in close proximity with their co-workers and may draw inappropriate conclusions regarding which co-workers are more likely to contract or spread the virus to others in the workplace. In anticipation of these issues, employers must take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace and ensure that all employees are given fair treatment.

Although the initial spread of COVID-19 began abroad, the disease is not linked to any race or nationality. Accordingly, employers cannot prevent employees of a certain race or national origin from returning to work or otherwise treat their employees differently because they belong to a protected category. National origin discrimination is defined as discrimination on the basis of a person’s geographic place of origin, ethnic group and tribal affiliation. National origin discrimination can also involve treating a person unfavorably because he or she is married to (or otherwise associated with) a person of a certain national origin.

Employers should review their existing anti-harassment and discrimination policies with a critical eye and consider distributing updated policies to employees to make clear that harassment or discrimination on the basis of race or national origin is strictly prohibited.

Updated Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policies Should:

  • Make clear that employees are prohibited from discriminating against others on the basis of a protected category, including but not limited to race, national origin or disability.
  • Stress that fear or anxiety about COVID-19 does not justify harassment or discrimination against certain individuals because of their race, national origin or disability.
  • Encourage employees to immediately report harassment or discrimination.
  • Include contact information for the person and/or department to whom complaints of harassment or discrimination can be made.
  • Emphasize that employees who report harassment or discrimination will not be retaliated against.
  • State that the employer will immediately review and investigate any allegations of harassment or discrimination and take appropriate corrective action, as necessary.
  • Remind managers and supervisors of the importance of immediately addressing and reporting any harassment or discrimination.

For additional information on how to prepare your business for re-opening in a safe and compliant manner, please contact Rhonda Nelson at rln@severson.com or Megan Clark at mfc@severson.com.