Online Workplace Sexual Harassment: What You Should Know

People used to think of workplace sexual harassment in terms of one of those old TV tropes where the lecherous boss chases the pretty, young secretary around the desk or an infantile co-worker won't stop making sexual comments to his female peer. 

However, thanks to the magic of the internet, it's no longer necessary to even be in the same building with someone to end up the victim of workplace sexual harassment. This is what you should know.

Sexual harassment is more than just unsolicited requests for dates.

While anyone can be the victim of sexual harassment, women are generally victimized online at more than twice the rate of men. Even on websites that specifically forbid harassing behavior and are constructed to be professional forums and connecting platforms, like LinkedIn, sexual harassment is a problem. In 2017, one victim responded by filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against a harasser's employer after suffering from repeated unwanted contact, including nude photos, from a company recruiter.

Sexual harassment online can actually take a variety of forms -- while repeated propositions can be one form of harassment, the behavior can also be a lot worse. If you're questioning whether or not something amounts to sexual harassment online, look for these kinds of behaviors:

  • emails, texts, or posts that repeatedly comment about your physical features 
  • emails or text messages that include photos or video snips of a sexual nature
  • threats of sexual violence, either directly (in emails or texts, for example) or indirectly (on posts on social media or on a blog)
  • lies about your sexual behavior, including claims that you were in a sexual relationship with someone you weren't, have a venereal disease, or are a sexual deviant 
  • claims that you have a criminal record relating to a sex crime
  • sexually-explicit posts that include intimate details about a past relationship you had with the abuser, with or without nude photos
  • threats to ruin your professional and private reputation through whatever means necessary, including posing as you on other social media sites 

One incident, if quickly ended, may feel like sexual harassment but probably won't amount to it in a legal sense (although there are exceptions).

Respond to online sexual harassment the same way you would in person.

The best thing that you can do to protect yourself against unwanted sexual harassment online is to rebuff the advances of anyone who makes a sexual overture your way and remind them that your work communications -- including those through email, text or professional social media platforms -- are meant to be about work.

If the individual doesn't quickly get the hint and stop, you can take more aggressive action:

If the incidents are occurring through a service like LinkedIn, review the terms of service. There's usually language prohibiting that kind of harassment. Report the harassment to the company and use whatever tools you are provided to block further communication.

If the incidents occur through your email or phone, take whatever steps you can to block further communication.

If you and the harasser work for the same company, review your employee handbook to determine if there is a specific method for reporting harassment and then do so.

If the harasser works for a company with which you do business, report the behavior to his or her immediate supervisor or human resources department.

If the harassment doesn't stop or interferes with your life, you may have to consult a sexual harassment attorney in order to determine exactly what legal options you have. Don't assume that you are powerless -- new precedents are happening every day because of the need for the law to catch up with the modern age.