With the ever-increasing use of social media and new platforms coming into play every day, employers need to be aware of the risks that come with increasing workplace use of social media. In particular, employers should be aware of the potential for digital harassment and what steps they can take to protect employees from it.
Having a working knowledge of how digital harassment affects employers and their employees can help them prevent such situations from ever arising or at least manage such situations when they do happen.
Why Digital Harassment Matters
The term digital harassment refers to any type of unwanted contact or communication over the internet or other digital networks. This includes things like sending an unsolicited image, making threats, spreading rumors about someone online, and more.
Digital harassment happens online, taking the form of phone calls, texts, emails, social media posts, and more. Often, it’s anonymous. It can be difficult to prove and even harder to stop.
It’s important not only because it’s a form of bullying that can have devastating effects on victims’ lives but also because it (including workplace digital harassment) is becoming increasingly common. That’s why companies need to know how to deal with it.
Digital Harassment in the Workplace
Digital harassment in the workplace can be a scary and difficult thing for employees to deal with. Not only does it have the potential to make an employee feel powerless and out of control, but it can also create a hostile work environment that impacts productivity and morale.
Consequently, digital harassment isn’t just an issue for employees. Far from it — employers also need to be aware of how digital harassment may impact their workplace. Companies can face several negative consequences if they fail to address digital harassment in their work environments:
- Loss of productivity: The effects of digital harassment on productivity are significant—employees affected by digital harassment can become unable to focus on their work, which impacts their ability to complete tasks efficiently. This results in increased costs for employers because of missed deadlines, re-work, and other issues related to poor performance.
- Higher turnover rates: Employees who experience digital harassment at work are more likely than other employees not targeted by such behavior to quit their jobs. Employers lose valuable talent when this happens and must then spend time and money recruiting new employees.
- Damaged reputation: Toxic work environments can damage a company’s reputation among potential customers, investors, or clients. Once word of it gets around, that will surely make it harder to attract any new and talented employees as well.
If a company fails to address digital harassment in the workplace, it could be held liable for any injuries or damages that occur because of that failure. That could mean hefty fines and involvement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In other words, digital harassment is serious business.
Why Digital Harassment Has Gone Up
Cyberbullying has taken a new turn. It’s now called digital harassment. Unfortunately, the internet is full of those who attack others online, often anonymously, and workplace digital harassment is no exception.
Social media is particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying because it allows users to post anything they want with minimal fear of repercussions or punishment from others who see it or read it. Social media can inadvertently give people a platform for harassing others publicly without fear of consequences from either the person being harassed or their employer.
How the Pandemic Made Digital Workplace Harassment Easier
Working from home can inevitably mean decreased separation between home life and work life. Employees at all levels now have more access than ever before to one another’s personal lives, which threatens to lead to a loss of professionalism in the workplace and an increase in harassment claims.
When employees are working from home, they’re less likely to keep personal matters private because they don’t have physical boundaries between their personal and professional lives. This means that it’s easier for coworkers to find out about one another’s family problems or marital issues, making it more likely for them to discuss those issues at work.
It’s easy for seemingly “harmless” workplace gossip to escalate, though, into harassment. Employees who hear this type of information may feel compelled to share it with other coworkers, who then feel compelled to share it with others. Eventually, the topic spreads throughout the entire office — even if no one meant for it to go beyond a small circle of friends.
Digital Harassment and Technology
Mobile devices have also made it easier to harass someone with anonymity. While many people don’t realize how easy it is to find another person’s personal information to harass them online, it’s an increasingly common occurrence.
Some forms of digital harassment include:
- Posting offensive images or videos on social media accounts
- Sending abusive emails or texts
- Making threats via text/phone call/email/post
- Using technology (e.g., hacking into another employee’s email) to spy on their activities at work
Digital harassment has become an epidemic in offices around the world, with many cases going unreported or unpunished by authorities. That’s because many people don’t understand what cyberbullying is or how to report it effectively, so they stay silent about their experiences rather than risk being ostracized by their peers or losing their jobs if their employer finds out.
Steps Toward Reducing Digital Harassment
Digital harassment at work can be defined as the use of technology to threaten, intimidate, or embarrass employees. Employers can reduce workplace digital harassment by educating employees about what constitutes digital harassment and how to deal with it. They need to set clear guidelines on how employees should communicate with each other online.
Some of the steps that companies could take in this regard include:
- Guidelines: Creating a clear anti-harassment policy with specific guidelines about how employees should respond if they witness or experience harassment
- Required reporting: Requiring employees to report incidents of harassment through a formal process (including an anonymous hotline) and having an investigation carried out by HR or another third party
- Training sessions: Training employees on how to recognize and report harassment, including what constitutes harassment, what actions are appropriate in response to it, and who they should contact within the company if they experience or witness it
Companies should have an employee handbook that outlines their policy for using social media sites at work. The handbook should also include instructions for reporting incidents of digital harassment. This will help employees know what to do if they witness such behavior — or if they’re subjected to it themselves.
Dealing With Digital Harassment When It Happens
Employers should create a policy about digital harassment, which should include guidelines for when employees can use company devices for personal purposes, what constitutes acceptable behavior online, and how to handle incidents of harassment when they occur.
Educate employees about the policy and make sure they understand what it means for them personally. That way, if something does happen, everyone knows what to expect.
Employers must be clear that they will not tolerate any form of harassment in their workplace. What that means for an individual employee depends on their role within the company, as well as the severity of harassment (e.g., whether there have been threats made against another person).
The Role of HR in Workplace Digital Harassment Cases
In the event of a workplace harassment case, employers must take the necessary steps to ensure that the offending employee is disciplined appropriately and that the victim receives support. The first step in this process is to contact human resources (HR). HR should be involved in all harassment cases, no matter how minor or severe they are.
An HR department first needs to understand, though, how to handle harassment claims in order for them to be handled appropriately. Management needs to know what took place and where, as well as when and in what way it’s appropriate to punish an employee.
When investigating claims of workplace harassment, HR has several responsibilities:
- Gathering evidence: This means collecting all relevant documents related to the incident so they can be used as proof if necessary. This might include emails or text messages between people involved, along with any other relevant information, such as witness statements collected in a controlled setting.
- Interviewing witnesses: Interviewing witnesses can help build stronger cases for both parties involved in harassment claims and ensure that all parties involved have their voices heard.
- Reporting findings to management: Once the investigation is complete, HR must present its findings to management and recommend the next steps (if any). The goal is to make sure the claims are handled appropriately, in a manner consistent with company policy.
Managing Employee Relations
One of the most important roles HR plays in workplace digital harassment cases is managing employee relations. When an employee experiences digital harassment from a co-worker or supervisor, it can have a negative impact on their productivity and morale at work. If left unchecked, this could lead to increased absenteeism and turnover rates among employees who feel harassed by others at work.
For example, if one employee is repeatedly posting offensive memes about another on social media, it could create an uncomfortable environment for the person who’s being targeted. This could cause that person to feel like they need to avoid certain areas of the office because they don’t feel safe around the other employee.
In these types of situations, HR can play a big role in helping resolve issues before they turn into lawsuits by taking immediate action against the offending employee.
Mitigating Legal Risk
HR professionals should be able to advise managers on how to respond to complaints of electronic harassment and how to mitigate potential legal liability by taking steps such as implementing anti-harassment policies and educating employees.
In practice, this can mean:
- Helping managers understand their obligations under federal law
- Providing guidance on what types of behavior are actionable and what types aren’t
- Teaching managers how to investigate complaints in a way that minimizes the risk of lawsuits or regulatory enforcement actions (e.g., by using a neutral fact-finding approach)
- Providing anti-harassment training for managers and employees (and potentially contractors).
In addition, HR should educate employees about their rights under the law and encourage them to come forward if they believe they have been harassed electronically.
Providing Support to Victims of Digital Harassment
HR professionals must provide support for victims of digital harassment by ensuring that their privacy rights are upheld. For example, they can help them remove inappropriate content from social media platforms or provide counseling or other resources as needed.
Digital harassment victims often feel powerless, especially if the perpetrator is their superior or a coworker. HR should know about the resources available to help victims report incidents and file complaints. They should also be prepared to offer emotional support in these situations and make sure employees know that their employer takes such claims seriously and will take the necessary action.
The educational process can include:
- Providing information about company policies on harassment and discrimination
- Offering guidance on how to file a complaint with management or human resources, if appropriate
- Giving employees information about local laws regarding workplace harassment and discrimination
It’s important for HR professionals to recognize that digital harassment is more than just impolite behavior on social media — it can have serious consequences for both victims and organizations.
Third-Party HR and Ending Digital Harassment
Now that more and more employees are working remotely, it’s increasingly crucial that employers ensure their employees feel safe and comfortable at all times, even online. In order to do this, employers need to be able to track employees’ performance and ensure they’re following the rules set in place by the company.
Employers can do this with the help of third-party HR services. Third-party HR can help employers by:
- Managing employee data
- Improving employee retention rates
- Streamlining onboarding processes (including education about harassment policies)
Resourcing Edge, for example, can provide guidance about how to handle legal issues or complaints that may arise within the workplace — including those related to harassment — so that they don’t get out of hand.
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