Workplace Sexual Harassment In The Digital Age

The digital age has changed a lot about the world, including how acts like workplace sexual harassment can occur. Learn more about how workplace sexual harassment can occur even when the parties involved aren't face-to-face or on the job.

How does online workplace sexual harassment occur?

Workplace sexual harassment over the internet usually takes one of two forms. The first is unwanted sexualized contact from the abuser. For example, it might take the form of emails with dirty jokes in it from your boss or nude photos sent to you by a coworker.

The second form of online sexual harassment takes the form of posts on various websites or social media sites by the abuser about the victim. For example, a former hedge fund CEO wrote sexually explicit posts on his social media site about a former receptionist.

Online sexual harassment can be more subtle, as well:

  • a constant string of sexually-oriented jokes via email or text

  • emails, texts, or messages on social media making intrusive inquiries or comments about your sexual relationships with others

  • emails or posts commenting on your body, hair, clothing, or other physical features

  • tagging you when posting explicit or highly sexual photos or memes

  • comments regarding your sexuality, physical attributes, or sexual behavior on blogs

How do you respond to workplace sexual harassment online?

Unless the event is particularly extreme, a single incident isn't likely to evolve into a full-blown sexual harassment lawsuit, but repeated problems could very well end up in court. To protect yourself if the case does evolve into a lawsuit, it's important to understand how you can and can't respond.

First, if the harassment is directed to you via email, text, instant message, or social media post, do not respond to it in any way that could be taken as tolerant, accepting, or encouraging. For example, a simple "lol" (for "laughing out loud") might seem like a harmless way to deflect an inappropriate joke or proposition. However, should the case go to court, that could be seen as implied encouragement or willing participation in the conversation. You can choose not to respond at all. Alternately, you can respond with a clear, concise statement saying that you don't want any more communications that are similar.

In addition, you don't have to confront the abuser in person. You can take your complaint through the following appropriate channels:

  • make copies of all inappropriate online contact or posts in order to document the harassment

  • review your employer's policies to see if a procedure is listed for reporting sexual harassment

  • report the harassment according to policy or to your most immediate supervisor (unless that is your abuser, in which case you should report to the next person in the chain of command)

  • follow up with your employer to determine what action, if any, has been taken to handle the situation and prevent it from happening again

  • Inform HR of the incident

If the harassment and unwanted contacts continue or you don't feel that your employer is being responsive to the situation, consider speaking with a sexual harassment lawyer about your case. You have a right to be free of sexual harassment both online and off.