Workplace sexual harassment can be done virtually

Workplace sexual harassment has traditionally involved inappropriate comments and unwanted attention from people with whom victims share a workplace. However, these days, with so much of our work communication done via computer and phone and often from home, workplace sexual harassment has become virtual.

That doesn’t make it any less disturbing. You may not fear for your personal safety if your harasser is sending you suggestive texts or inappropriate photos from your company’s London, Sydney or Hong Kong office. However, it’s still harassment, whether it’s being done by someone on another floor of an office building, the other side of the country or halfway around the world.

What can online sexual harassment involve?

Online sexual harassment can include sharing of any unwelcome content or materials that are sexually explicit or inappropriate. This can be in the form of emails, texts, Skype or other direct messages or Zoom or other video interactions.

Another type of virtual sexual harassment involves less direct behavior that is the online equivalent of gossiping about people in the workplace. Often, as with in-person gossiping, more than one person is involved. It can include:

  • Negative comments, slurs or rumors about a person’s sexual orientation or sexual activities
  • Sharing inappropriate images of a person without their consent – for example, if colleagues were once romantically involved
  • Posting unwanted and inappropriate comments or material on a colleague’s social media pages

A person can end up being the victim of a multitude of harassers, spurred on by one.

Online sexual harassment is easier to do – but also easier to prove

As is obvious to anyone who’s ever been on Twitter, it’s easy to harass someone virtually and say things you wouldn’t say to them in person. If there’s one positive to it, it’s that it’s generally easy to obtain and keep evidence of the harassment.

Texts, emails and other virtual communication can typically be saved. Taking a quick screenshot can let you save a post that a harasser might delete later.

Organizations should be updating their sexual harassment policies to include cyber sexual harassment. Here in California, we have the advantage of state laws that also address it.

Whether your employer has addressed this issue in their policies or not, you still need to report it and provide evidence, no matter how distasteful that evidence is. If your employer fails to deal with the situation, it may be wise to explore your legal options.