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Employee Harassment Online – How to Combat It

Harassment at work is prevalent and can be tough to combat. Being informed and prepared can help employees dealing with harassment recognise their rights and take action when needed. In some work environments, harassment may seem easy to brush off as playful camaraderie or “playing the game”, but it is no less serious than more direct, explicit bullying. Negative actions are often prompted by a harasser’s feelings of fear, disrespect or entitlement, but no matter the reasons, the only way to end workplace harassment is to properly address it.

U.S. law requires employers to create a workplace free from discrimination and harassment. But as offices go virtual, what happens when staff confront a torrent of hate and abuse online? Given that over 44% of Americans say they’ve experienced online harassment, chances are, if you’re an employer, you have people on staff who’ve been impacted. For those with public facing jobs (journalists, policymakers, academics, etc.), online abuse may well be part of day-to-day working life.

Although anyone can be subjected to online abuse, women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately targeted for their identities and experience more severe forms of harassment. As more and more organisations proclaim their commitment to providing equitable and inclusive work environments, they can no longer afford to ignore the very real consequences of online abuse.

And yet the professional impact, within and across industries, is significantly understudied.

The creative and media sectors are among the few industries for which we have research. A 2017 PEN America survey of writers and journalists found that over a third of respondents who had experienced online abuse reported an impact on their professional lives, with 64% taking a break from social media, 37% avoiding certain topics in their writing, and 15% ceasing to publish altogether. A 2019 study from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which focused specifically on female and gender non-conforming journalists in the U.S., found that 90% cited online harassment as the single biggest threat they faced.

In other words, in the media sector, online abuse is damaging the professional prospects and chilling the speech of those already underrepresented in the industry. It is precisely the voices that most urgently need to be heard in debates around race, gender, and the rights of marginalised groups that are at the greatest risk of being silenced.

Employers need to do better. When staff are attacked online in a way that intersects with their professional life, organisations have a responsibility to take the abuse seriously, and help address it. Some employers may feel they don’t know where to start, but in fact there are many steps you can take to support your teams in preparing for, responding to, and mitigating the damage of online abuse.

Acknowledging the Harm

To create an environment where employees feel safe and supported enough to come forward when they are being abused online, leadership needs to let staff know that they take the issue seriously and expect managers and colleagues to do the same. Targets often suffer in isolation, partly because there’s still a great deal of stigma and shame associated with harassment, online or off. Many people who are disproportionately attacked online have also been marginalized in other spaces, so they may have legitimate concerns about being dismissed, mocked, or punished. A commitment to supporting staff who are being abused online can be formalized by amending existing policies and protocols around sexual harassment and social media use, communicated via all-staff emails and meetings, and reinforced by the ways in which managers and HR react to individual cases.

Online Protocols Setup & Training

When staff are being harassed online, they often have no idea where to turn or what to do. Arm them with the knowledge that there are concrete steps they can take to proactively protect themselves and respond. Having clear protocols can make staff feel safer and more empowered. To ensure staff are actually aware of these initiatives, employers can fold policies and protocols into onboarding and employee handbooks, post them on intranets and Slack channels, and encourage managers, HR, IT, and social media staff to reinforce them — and offer training.

Guarantee Resources

These should include: cybersecurity services that protect against hacking, impersonation, doxing, and identity theft, including password managers, such as Password or LastPass, and data scrubbers, such as DeleteMe or PrivacyDuck; mental health care or counseling; legal counseling; and guidance, such as PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.

Support Groups

Online abuse is intended to be profoundly isolating, which is why giving staff a safe space to vent, share experiences, and exchange strategies is vitally important. Encourage staff to band together and create a peer support group. Just make sure they have adequate time and access to leadership to apply their hard-earned knowledge to help improve policies, protocols, and resources.

Escalate Certain Situations

From social media to email and messaging apps, most digital platforms have mechanisms to report online abuse. But sometimes these mechanisms fail. As an individual, it can be difficult to get a platform’s attention, but organisations often have direct contacts at tech companies. If a staff member has reported abuse that clearly violates terms of service and is nevertheless unable to get it removed, escalating the issue directly to tech company contacts can make all the difference.

We are facing an unprecedented moment in professional life. The hyper-digital world we’ve been plunged into is already exacerbating harassment and hate online. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has put much-needed pressure on for-profit and nonprofit organisations to redouble their commitment to creating more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces. Online abuse is a major stumbling block to these efforts. If organisations are serious about supporting staff who identify as women, nonbinary, or BIPOC, it’s high time to have their backs in the face of online attacks.

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