The Rising Legal Risks of Rigid Return-to-Office Policies


The Rising Legal Risks of Rigid Return-to-Office Policies

Consider employees’ disabilities, age, and parental responsibilities in today’s litigation landscape

The guidance also underscores the importance of accommodating the needs of diverse employee groups, with specific attention to LGBTQ+ employees. This focus is critical in fostering an inclusive work environment and ensuring that harassment policies are sensitive to the needs of all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. Employers are encouraged to review and update their policies to ensure they provide clear, specific protections against harassment of LGBTQ+ employees, which is essential in maintaining a respectful and inclusive workplace culture.

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Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute, notes that he has “great concerns” about RTO for people with disabilities, including transportation to and from work, workplace accessibility, and the potential to encounter micro- or larger aggressions. Brandalyn Bickner, a spokesperson for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said in a statement that the Americans With Disabilities Act’s (ADA) reasonable accommodation obligation includes “modifying workplace policies” and “might require an employer to waive certain eligibility requirements or otherwise modify its telework program for someone with a disability who needs to work at home.”

Employers, therefore, need to carefully consider the effect of RTO mandates on their older workforce. Offering flexibility, whether through remote work options or hybrid models, could be crucial in retaining older employees. Additionally, engaging in dialogue with this segment of the workforce to understand their specific needs and concerns can help in formulating policies that are inclusive and considerate of all age groups.

Working parents and gender disparities

To mitigate these risks, employers must take proactive steps to provide equitable support to all working parents. This could include offering flexible work schedules, remote work options, or part-time arrangements that allow parents to manage their work and child care responsibilities more effectively. Additionally, employers should consider implementing policies that specifically support working mothers, such as extended maternity leave, breastfeeding breaks and facilities, or support for child care.

One of the most pressing issues is disability discrimination. With many employees having worked remotely for more than two years without a dip in productivity or performance, employers face a challenging legal landscape when justifying the need for in-person work.

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The resistance to RTO mandates among older workers isn’t just a matter of preference; it brings to the fore concerns about age discrimination. If RTO policies disproportionately affect older employees, either by forcing them into early retirement or by making their work conditions less favorable compared to their younger counterparts, employers could face age discrimination claims. These concerns are amplified by the fact that losing older workers en masse could mean a significant loss of experience, skills, and institutional knowledge for organizations.

Additionally, the guidance highlights the need for updated policies related to video meetings and lactation accommodations. As video conferencing becomes a staple in remote and hybrid work models, employers must establish clear guidelines to prevent and address harassment that may occur in these virtual settings. This includes setting standards for professional conduct during video calls and ensuring that employees’ privacy and dignity are respected. Similarly, the guidance on lactation accommodations reflects an understanding of the changing needs of working parents, particularly mothers, in remote work scenarios.

The lack of flexible working options can exacerbate existing inequalities. Mothers often bear a larger share of domestic and child care responsibilities, and inflexible work schedules can intensify these demands, leading to increased stress and potential burnout. This situation is particularly challenging for single mothers or those without access to external child care support. The inability to balance these demands can lead to mothers being forced to choose between their careers and their family responsibilities, a choice that fathers are less likely to face to the same extent.

The insistence on a full return to the office without considering individual circumstances could lead to a surge in legal issues, a reality backed by a significant uptick in workforce discrimination charges. Credit: “Discrimination,” The People Speak.

Effect on older workers

The evolving legal landscape, shaped by advancements in legal technology and updated guidelines on harassment, presents new challenges and complexities for employers, particularly in the context of remote and hybrid work environments. The EEOC has recently published important updates in its guidance addressing the nuances of remote work and discrimination.

Are employers walking into a legal storm by enforcing rigid return-to-office (RTO) mandates? The post-pandemic era presents a unique challenge as employers grapple with shifting workforce dynamics. The insistence on a full return to the office without considering individual circumstances could lead to a surge in legal issues, particularly discrimination claims. This concern isn’t mere speculation; it’s a reality backed by a significant uptick in workforce discrimination charges.

The disability discrimination dilemma

The legal risks associated with RTO policies are further highlighted by their effect on working parents, especially mothers. The transition from remote to office work brings into sharp focus the balancing act that working parents, especially mothers, must perform between their professional responsibilities and child care obligations. The legal implications of these policies stem from the potential for indirect discrimination and unequal treatment of working parents.

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Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2023 – 12:03

Instituting these changes requires a cultural shift within organizations to recognize and value the diversity of employees’ needs. This shift involves not only policy changes but also a broader understanding and empathy toward the challenges faced by working parents. By fostering an inclusive work environment that accommodates the unique needs of working mothers, employers can not only avoid potential legal challenges but also enhance employee satisfaction and retention.

Additional considerations in remote tech and discrimination

Mental health issues have become increasingly prominent in the context of workplace accommodations. The pandemic has led to a 25% increase in cases of depression and anxiety in the United States, underscoring the need for employers to consider remote work as a reasonable accommodation. Companies are facing a rise in mental-health disability discrimination complaints from employees who view remote work as a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC has observed a 16% increase in such charges between 2021 and 2022, particularly for conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. This trend is indicative of a broader challenge where mental health disorders have become a prominent reason for disability complaints. Employers who fail to make an effort to accommodate such requests risk facing EEOC actions. In September, the agency filed a complaint against a Georgia company after it fired a marketing manager who requested to work remotely three days a week to accommodate anxiety.

In response to these challenges, I tell my clients that they would benefit from adopting a flexible approach to RTO mandates. A one-size-fits-all policy might not only lead to legal repercussions but also overlook the diverse needs of a modern workforce. Companies need to make wise decisions and avoid biases in considering individual employee circumstances, including disability, age, and parental responsibilities, to navigate this new legal landscape successfully. Inflexible RTO mandates not only risk alienating key segments of the workforce but also invite a host of legal challenges. By embracing flexibility and inclusivity in RTO strategies, employers can mitigate legal risks, foster employee engagement, and build a more inclusive and productive work environment.