Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms. From
the sexually explicit remarks and suggestive innuendo alleged by Gretchen
Carlson, to unwanted touching, to demands for sex in exchange for job
benefits, to the circulation of sexual materials and pictures, people find many
ways to create a hostile and offensive working environment.The ever-increasing use of electronic
communication and digital technology in the workplace has brought huge
benefits, but it has also created a series of new opportunities, and a new
platform, for inappropriate behavior.
As employees engage with one another—in and out of the
office—through email, text messages, instant messaging, and social networks,
the lines between professional and personal lives become blurred. Harassment
can take the form of offensive and uninvited emails or text
messages, comments and posts on Facebook or Snapchat, or communications
through other social networks or online forums. Even digital communications
that occur between co-workers outside of the workplace can be deemed to
contribute to a hostile, offensive or sexualized working environment.If they are, an employer can be liable if it
was aware of the postings, if the communications occurred between supervisors
and subordinates, or if the harassing employee was using employer-owned
devices or accounts.
It isn’t all bad news, though. Digital technology can help
solve some of the problems it creates. Employers are able to monitor the digital
technology and platforms they provide, and can use monitoring to identify and
correct inappropriate communication as it occurs. Employee monitoring, like all
applications of technology, comes with risks
and rewards of its own, but is an important part of meeting the employer’s
obligation to provide a working environment that is reasonably free of
So what can an employer do?
We’ve previously covered the
basics of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, but there are a
few things employers can do that are particularly relevant to harassment that
occurs through electronic communication.
Review your sexual harassment policy to ensure that it encompasses electronic communications and online and social media activities.
Expressly prohibit sexually explicit communications on company technology.
Implement or update your electronic communications policy. It should inform employees that they have no expectation of privacy when using company devices or accounts, that the company may monitor their computer usage, and that they may be disciplined for inappropriate use of company technology.
Make sure your policies broadly define social media and online activity.
Review harassment and electronic communications policies annually to ensure that they address ongoing developments in technology and social media.