Virtual Sexual Harassment: What It Is and How to Stop It in the Workplace
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 41 per cent of American adults have been the subject of some type of harassment online. Even more staggering, one in five people have experienced extreme forms of digital harassment, including online sexual harassment.
Because we spend so much of our time online, virtual sexual harassment has become a major, yet sometimes overlooked, issue both at home and in the workplace. Here’s how you can protect your employees.
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What is Virtual Sexual Harassment?
We’re constantly connected these days, thanks to smartphones, social media and messaging apps. While there are many advantages to having your whole life in your pocket, these technologies have also made it easier for harassers to prey on their victims.
In addition to inappropriate verbal and physical encounters, sexual harassment can now involve unwanted digital interactions. Online sexual harassment falls into two categories: the victim receiving unwelcome materials and content that is posted about the victim.
Under the first category, the victim receives emails, texts or instant messages that contain sexually explicit words or photos from their harasser. The harasser may proposition the victim or send inappropriate images or videos of themselves or others.
The second category of virtual sexual harassment includes behaviors such as:
- Comments or rumors about the victim’s sexuality
- Comments or rumors about the victim’s sexual activities
- Sharing sexually explicit photos without consent
- Using sexual or gender-based derogatory terms to describe the victim
Harassers may post this content on their social media pages or online forums or send it to others via email, text message or other digital application.
RELATED: The 2019 Guide to Workplace Sexual Harassment [Infographic]
Why Virtual Sexual Harassment Occurs
While physical and verbal sexual harassment often stem from the harasser’s desire to control or intimidate the victim, online sexual harassment can have other intentions. Posting explicit photos or sexual information (whether true or not) is often meant to shame the victim. Some harassers may personally know the victim, have been turned down in person and are now retaliating online. However, virtual sexual harassment can spiral out of control.
In the book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, the authors explain that “the lack of a physical link between the attacker and the victim makes it easier to say things one wouldn’t in person.” For example, an employee who wants to ask another for a date but is too afraid may send a sexually suggestive email instead because they don’t have to face their coworker in person.
Additionally, when a harasser posts something publicly, other harassers may add fuel to the fire, even if they don’t know the victim. Why? “The online posters may not know exactly who the victims are or see them as real people,” say the authors, plus “there is always the ability to hop off the discussion at any time.”
While “traditional” sexual harassment usually involved one harasser and one or more victims, online sexual harassment may include numerous harassers ganging up on one victim.
RELATED: Workplace Sexual Harassment Training Video 
How to Prevent Virtual Sexual Harassment
Virtual sexual harassment can be harder to detect because it takes place online, not out in the open. However, there are ways to protect your employees from it.
First, show your organization’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Write a strong sexual harassment policy and include online behaviors. Enforce the policy without exception. Also, encourage employees to offer their opinions on how to make your workplace safer when it comes to virtual sexual harassment.
Next, encourage senior management to set the tone of anti-harassment at the top. This means living the company’s values, taking complaints seriously and being supportive of changes that could arise from an online sexual harassment incident. Most importantly, managers should never retaliate against an employee who reports misconduct.
Finally, encourage employees to speak up about virtual sexual harassment. Make reporting harassment safe and easy. Offer multiple reporting avenues, such as a dedicated phone number, email address and webform. Above all, take real action when you receive reports. Ignoring reports or dragging your feet on investigations tells employees that you prioritize your company’s image over their safety.
Let employees know exactly what behaviors are not acceptable in your sexual harassment policy. Use our free template to get started.
Updating Your Sexual Harassment Training
Take a look at your organization’s current anti-harassment policy and training. Do they include virtual sexual harassment? Update the policy and circulate it to all employees.
Then, train employees about what digital conduct is and is not acceptable. Teach them how to identify online sexual harassment and how to report it on behalf of themselves or a coworker.
Include role-playing exercises to help employees understand how to avoid harassing their coworkers online, too. Avoid long lectures and opt for shorter, more frequent sessions with interactive elements.
In addition, train employees in small groups, hosting separate sessions for managers and staff. Management training should include information about how to protect themselves, their employees and the organization from the effects of virtual sexual harassment. In employee sessions, give participants a chance to offer feedback and ask questions. More personal attention helps them absorb the anti-harassment message.
The US has a federal cyber-stalking law that covers online harassment, but some states, including California, Illinois and Massachusetts, have their own set of regulations. Craft your training program to reflect the definitions of virtual sexual harassment and its consequences based on these laws.
Online harassment may be difficult to spot, but it is no less destructive than its physical form. Ensure your organization has mechanisms and training in place to combat it.