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Social Media and Sexual Harassment: Addressing Online Workplace Misconduct

By Douglas Lipsky

Social media has significantly transformed workplace interactions in New York and around the country, blurring the lines between professional and personal communication. This shift has introduced new challenges, notably in how sexual harassment can manifest in online work settings. Let’s explore online harassment in the workplace and what you can do about it.

Defining Online Harassment

Online sexual harassment in the workplace encompasses a range of misconduct through digital platforms and social mediums, such as:

  • Sending inappropriate messages
  • Sharing offensive or explicit images
  • Making lewd comments on social media posts,

Online harassment may not always be overt and can be masked under the guise of ‘jokes’ or ‘casual comments’. However,  any sexual or suggestive content that creates an uncomfortable or hostile work environment falls under the umbrella of harassment.

Understanding the Legal Framework

Under federal law, sexual harassment in the workplace, including online harassment, is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law applies to employers with 15 or more employees and protects workers from discrimination based on sex, which encompasses sexual harassment. Online interactions related to work, regardless of the platform used, fall under this protection, meaning that employees experiencing sexual harassment online have legal recourse under federal law.

In addition, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) provides additional protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, including online environments. The NYSHRL applies to all employers, regardless of size, offering broader coverage than federal law. Finally, 

the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) offers even more comprehensive protection against sexual harassment in the workplace, including online harassment. This law covers employers with four or more employees and broadly defines sexual harassment to include online misconduct that creates a hostile work environment.

Telltale  Signs of Online Harassment

Recognizing the signs of online sexual harassment is essential to addressing it effectively. Key indicators include:

  • Inappropriate messaging – receiving unsolicited messages with sexual content or innuendos.
  • Offensive comments on social media – encountering derogatory or sexually suggestive comments on work-related social media posts.
  • Unwanted sharing of images or videos – being sent or tagged in sexually explicit or suggestive images or videos without consent.

Such misconduct constitutes harassment and can create a hostile work environment. Employees should feel empowered to report these incidents, knowing their concerns will be addressed. Creating a culture where online sexual harassment is unacceptable is essential for maintaining a safe and respectful online work environment.

How To Stop Online Harassment in the Workplace

If you experience online sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s crucial to take steps to address it. First, document inappropriate interactions, including screenshots of messages, emails, or social media posts, dates, and times. This will be important evidence if you pursue a sexual harassment claim.

Next, report the behavior to your employer, specifically your HR department. They are required to investigate such complaints and take appropriate action. If your employer’s response is inadequate or the harassment continues, seeking legal counsel can be a crucial next step. An employment lawyer can advise you on your rights and the best course of action, which may include filing a formal complaint with relevant state or federal agencies or pursuing legal action. 

Taking action against harassment will protect your rights and may create a safer and more respectful online work environment for all employees. Remember, you have legal options to address and rectify instances of online sexual harassment.

The Takeaway

Understanding and addressing online sexual harassment is critical in today’s digitally connected workplace. Employers and employees must foster a respectful online environment, ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment. If you have experienced online harassment in the workplace, talk to an experienced employment lawyer.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.