What to Do When Your Employee is Harassed Online
This piece was originally published by Harvard Business Review.
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 organizations 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 marginalized groups that are at the greatest risk of being silenced.
Though we currently lack hard data to measure the impact on other industries, there are countless articles on rampant online abuse in tech, finance, gaming, higher ed, and beyond. Employers increasingly expect staff to be active on social media and, in most sectors, using email and cell phones is effectively required — all factors that increase vulnerability. Still, the issue is rarely discussed in the workplace. In fact, rather than being supported, in some cases staff have been reprimanded, suspended, and even fired for being harassed (every troll’s fantasy).
Employers need to do better. When staff are attacked online in a way that intersects with their professional life, organizations 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.
As an organization…
Acknowledge 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.
Assess the scope: Survey staff to figure out the degree to which they are facing and how they are navigating online abuse. The survey can be informal and anonymous. It should examine: how often staff are experiencing abuse and on which platforms; what kinds of tactics they’re being subjected to; the emotional, psychological, and professional toll; and how the institution can offer support. You may be surprised to learn just how many of your employees are affected — especially those who identify as women, nonbinary, or nonwhite.
Create protocols and offer 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. Here are a few examples of protocols and training that could be put in place:
- Digital security: Although most employees use digital tools (email, messaging, search engines, social media) professionally, few are given guidance and training on how to do so safely. But providing your employees with this information is vital to bolstering their digital security. Mandating long unique passwords and two-factor authentication (more info here) to protect from hacking and impersonation are two steps all employers can take to protect staff. Leadership can also encourage self-auditing on search engines and social media to defend against doxing and the weaponization of old posts.
- Online abuse:Map out what staff can do if they are being abused online, including how to report the issue internally, what kind of support they can seek, and what the institutional position is on practicing counterspeech, a tactic for combating or neutralizing hate speech.
- Social media: If you expect staff to have a social media presence, you need a social media policy. Most are prescriptive and prohibitive, focused on what staff should not do on social media, but a responsive and inclusive policy also offers guidance on how staff can navigate abuse.
Develop an internal reporting system: As a part of your online abuse protocol, create a space where staff can safely and privately report it. They may not know whether to approach a colleague, a manager, or HR. Or they may be hesitant to speak to a manager if, say, the harassment is sexually explicit or their manager has previously dismissed their concerns. Put together a small task force to clarify what kinds of abuse staff can report, create a reporting mechanism (for example, a designated email account or Slack channel), monitor it, and ensure prompt follow up offers resources and support. A reporting system can help you identify patterns in abuse (multiple staff might be dealing with the same stalker) and assess threats (distinguishing between, say, someone being a jerk vs. an abuser with a history of violence).
Offer concrete resources and services: 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.
Moderate content: If your organization expects staff to express themselves via blogs, articles, or organizational social media channels — that is, on platforms allowing for public commentary — you can protect them from harassment by creating and enforcing guidelines for acceptable content. While fostering open online debate is important, it is also fair to define what you consider to be abusive and decide how such comments will be dealt with. News outlets like the Wall Street Journal have started creating clear policies. Machine learning — such as the Voxmedia’s Coral Project or Jigsaw’s Perspective — can also help human content moderators enforce those policies.
Encourage peer support networks: 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.
Issue a statement of support: If staff are being harassed in response to their work, odds are high that the abusers want to push them out of professional spaces, intimidate them into self-censorship, or even damage their employer. The power dynamics between a lone target and an abusive (often coordinated) mob are extraordinarily uneven. Let staff know you have their backs by taking a stand against hate and harassment online.
As a manager…
Reach out and listen: Proactively reach out to staff targeted by online abuse, check in, and listen closely to their needs. Keep in mind that some individuals — depending on their identity or life experience — may not feel comfortable calling attention to their situation for fear of retaliation or increased scrutiny, so be discreet. These conversations are best held privately, although the affected employee should feel empowered to invite a trusted colleague or HR representative. Ensure staff facing online abuse are engaged in every decision that could affect them, particularly in terms of public disclosure and interactions with law enforcement.
Assess the threat: Work closely with targeted staff to gauge threats to physical safety (for themselves, their family, and other staff); it may be necessary to engage law enforcement or professional security experts.
Document and delegate: Documenting online abuse can be instrumental for escalating abuse to tech companies and law enforcement, and pursuing legal action. Using in-platform mechanisms like reporting, blocking, and muting can be one of the best places to start. But taking these steps can also be exhausting and re-traumatizing for the target. Employers can offer a temporary respite by asking a close colleague or the social media team to monitor, report, or document abuse.
Escalate: 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 organizations 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 organizations to redouble their commitment to creating more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces. Online abuse is a major stumbling block to these efforts. If organizations 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.