7 Problems with Digital Communications and What Employers
Can do to Prevent Charges of E-Harassment

The advent of smart phones and social media networks have created a whole new frontier for workplace harassment – sometimes called “e-harassment”. People can send messages or post comments instantly and surreptitiously without considering the consequences. Constant “connectivity” leaves people more vulnerable to unwanted communications and inappropriate communications can lead to complaints of sexual harassment or other forms of unlawful harassment.  All types of electronic communications including text messages, social media posts, instant messengers and e-mails pose unique problems when it comes to potential for harassment. Here are some of the issues related to high tech harassment in the workplace.  

  1. Messages are sent instantly often without proper consideration of the effect they will have. Once sent, there is no way of taking it back! 

  2. The sender doesn’t have insight into the reaction of the recipient and it is therefore more difficult to determine whether the messages are well received or unwanted.
     
  3. People feel compelled or emboldened to say and do things via electronic communications that they would not do in person.  

  4. With audio, video and Internet capabilities on virtually every phone, it is too easy to access or privately create graphic, intimate or personal messages. The term “sexting” has been coined to refer to the act of sending or receiving sexually explicit messages, videos, or photos.  

  5. With smart phones providing near constant access to people, these types of communications can be very intrusive and senders have little control over the circumstances in which their communications may be received.  

  6. Smart phones have blurred the lines between work and personal lives. People often use personal devices for work and work devices for personal business. Messages that are sent after-hours may be received at work and negatively affect the workplace. Texting sexually suggestive and/or explicit pictures or messages can contribute to a hostile work environment no matter when or how the messages were sent.

  7. Electronic communications leave a permanent digital footprint that can be retraced even if deleted. Sexually suggestive or otherwise inappropriate texts or e-mails provide very compelling evidence of harassment in the event of a complaint.  

What can Employers Do? 

With the number of high profile sexting cases in the news, it is clear that otherwise thoughtful and sensible people can be lured into exercising extremely poor judgment when communicating electronically. Steps should be taken to by every organization to limit the potential for liability due to e-harassment.  

1. Update Policies 

Every organization should have a clear electronic communications policy and update anti-harassment policies to make it clear that sending offensive or inappropriate communications, electronically or otherwise, is prohibited. In particular, it should be made clear that sending sexually suggestive or explicit messages or pictures via email, text message, or on social media to anyone with whom one has a work relationship is forbidden, no matter when the messages are sent – on or off the clock. 

2. Train Everyone 

Employers should train managers, supervisors and employees periodically on the appropriate use of electronic communications, including communications on social network sites and communications that take place outside of the workplace or on their own personal devices. Employees should be asked to acknowledge understanding of company policies related to electronic communications and everyone should be reminded that electronic communications leave a permanent digital footprint. As a general rule, if an employee (or supervisor) cannot see themselves defending a communication in front of their coworkers, their spouse, or a judge, they shouldn’t send it!    

3. Respond to Complaints Promptly  

All reports of e-harassment or “sexting” should be taken seriously, investigated promptly and appropriate actions taken in response.  

 

 

Posted in Bullying, Diversity and Respect, Sexual Harassment and tagged , , , , , , .