Cyber Harassment and Electronic Harassment in the Workplace

cyber electronic harassment in the workplaceYou take out your phone to check the weather for the weekend, but instead you see notifications for “106 missed calls” and over 200 new text messages from strange area codes and unfamiliar phone numbers.  How do you know if you are suffering from electronic harassment?

This actually happened in one of my first cyber harassment cases, back in 2009.   A female client (“the victim”) had gotten into a real-life heated argument with a co-worker (the alleged “harasser”).   A few days later, the co-worker went on Craigslist and impersonated the victim.  The harasser posted a racy ad in the “Casual Dating” section, and included the victim’s real photo, email address, and cell phone number.  Within a few hours, the victim had received over 300 calls and messages.

Most examples of workplace cyber harassment are not this extreme.  In fact, many times, we may not even be aware that something we are doing can be interpreted as harassment or abusive conduct.   Nonetheless, the statistics show that electronic harassment is a growing trend, and is showing up in the workplace as the latest form of sexual harassment.

According to a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center, four-in-ten U.S. adults have personally experienced harassing or abusive behavior online.  18% have been the target of severe harassment such as stalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment.  Cyber harassment in the workplace is a real problem.

Most of us are already familiar with the main forms of sexual harassment: physical harassment, verbal harassment, and visual harassment.  Workplace cyber harassment is a hybrid.  It is part verbal harassment (the harasser usually posts hateful comments about the victim, or impersonates the victim), part visual harassment (the harasser often uses photos of the victim available from the victim’s social media), and sometimes physical harassment (real-world stalking, assault).

For employees who experience online harassment, the effects can include mental and emotional stress, damage to your reputation, and fearing for your real-world safety.

Examples of Workplace Cyber Harassment

  • Repeatedly texting a co-worker to ask them out
  • Making fun of a person in a group email and accidentally CC’ing them
  • Posting or sending an offensive meme to a workplace collaboration app (Slack, Google Hangouts)
  • Posting or sending a lewd and/or offensive gif
  • Sharing a picture meant to be funny
  • Posting comments/rumors/gossip about a co-worker you don’t like
  • Sharing Personally Identifying Information about someone, either to embarrass/humiliate them, or cause them to fear for their safety
  • Repetitively texting a co-worker to annoy them

Many of us share funny memes, gifs, and videos with friends, but in the workplace, we must be mindful of our conduct, especially in emails, text messages, group chats, online forums, and social media.

How to Stop Employee Cyberbullying And Electronic Harassment

First, ask the person to stop, if possible.  This will also aid you in documenting the cyber harassment was unwelcome.   Although it may be tempting, do not delete threatening text messages, emails, pictures, or posts.  Be sure to take screenshots, as the harasser may later delete their messages or posts.  Next, report the harassment to management.  Under the law, harassment is illegal and your employer is obligated to conduct an investigation into all complaints of workplace harassment.  Depending on the circumstances, the electronic harassment may constitute abusive conduct, cyberbullying, and/or sexual harassment.  Lastly, depending on the conduct of alleged harasser, you may have to contact law enforcement and file criminal charges.

There will always be a balance in how we communicate in the workplace while maintaining professionalism.  If you need additional guidance, consult with your Human Resources department.  If you see a co-worker being harassed, consider the best bystander intervention strategy.

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