The Unique Trauma of Online Sexual Harassment
Dealing with the dynamics of digital discomfort.
Posted March 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Workplace sexual harassment can follow employees home due to an "always-on" culture and increased ways to contact coworkers after-hours.
- Online sexual harassment can be especially difficult to cope with because it blurs the boundaries between work and life and typically isn't witnessed by others.
- Most victims do not report online sexual harassment, often out of fear of retaliation or escalation.
- Because it happens online rather than in-person, many victims erroneously view it as a private manner or not worth addressing.
Many people grew up in an age where at least during the workday, they were able to physically avoid annoying, rude, or harassing co-workers or bosses. This was especially true in large workplaces, which provided opportunities to avoid toxic colleagues in the conference room, the boardroom, or the break room.
Today, avoiding harassing employees is not as easy—or in some cases, even an option—because communication also takes place online. Sure, you can turn off your device after work. But not only might you worry about missing an important message, if you were a victim of harassment, you may also feel anxious that inappropriate messages would just be there waiting when you turn it back on. Many victims have shared they would rather just read the inappropriate messages as they came in to get it over with. But that is not an acceptable way to live—especially off the clock. Is there a solution?
Why Online Sexual Harassment is Different
Jennifer A. Scarduzio et al. (2020) examined the growing problem of coworker online sexual harassment. [i] They adopt a working definition of sexual harassment per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2019) as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” They note that employees subjected to online harassment by coworkers experience a different type of discomfort than that which occurs in person. They recognize that online “tools” make it easier for perpetrators to harass victims, and create an environment that is overwhelming for survivors.
Scarduzio et al. recognize that online harassment blurs work-life boundaries, and allows perpetrators to engage in inappropriate behavior without surveillance. Consequently, victims are faced with a unique decision regarding reporting, which is complicated by the fact that many organizations do not have policies that specifically cover conduct outside of the workplace, or online.
Why Victims Do or Don't Report Online Harassment
Scarduzio et al. note that prior research found that victims cope with online sexual harassment by normalizing, ignoring, downplaying, or blaming themselves for the harassment. In their own research studying employees who were sexually harassed on Facebook, they found some additional dynamics that impacted the decision to report the conduct.
One-third of their participants reported the harassment, explaining their motivation as including feeling unsafe, afraid, or uncomfortable, and that the harassment was affecting their work performance. They were also motivated by wanting to stop the behavior and punish the harasser.
Scarduzio et al. note that the most common reason victims reported was emotional discomfort. Many of the subjects described feelings of awkwardness and personal discomfort that persisted both in and out of the workplace. They also reported how their discomfort impacted the work environment, leading to negative consequences such as difficult interactions with coworkers and supervisors, and decreased productivity.
Of the two-thirds of their study participants who chose not to report online sexual harassment by a coworker, Scarduzio et al. note that explanations included wanting to handle the situation themselves, feeling uncomfortable, thinking the harassment was not worth addressing, worrying that reporting it would make it worse, or concern about backlash by coworkers or employers. The fact that the harassment was online instead of in-person also played a role, too, causing victims to view it as a private issue that they should handle outside of the workplace.
How Social Support Facilitates Disclosure of Online Harassment
Scarduzio et al. found that in the balance, the personal distress of harassment can outweigh the desire to keep sensitive information private. They also found that the decision to report is impacted by anticipated social support, with participants deciding to share information with those whom they perceived would render appropriate assistance.
Accepting that sexual harassment is a serious social problem, whether it occurs on or offline, should inspire the creation of a supportive, respectful environment where survivors will feel comfortable revealing inappropriate behavior, so it can be properly addressed.
[i] Scarduzio, Jennifer A., Shawna Malvini Redden, and Jennifer Fletcher. 2020. “Everyone’s ‘Uncomfortable’ but Only Some People Report: Privacy Management, Threshold Levels, and Reporting Decisions Stemming from Coworker Online Sexual Harassment.” Journal of Applied Communication Research, November. doi:10.1080/00909882.2020.1849771.