You are a virtual worker…but things are different now. When your inbox chimes, you approach it with caution. The highlighted subject line shoots a chill down your back. Before you open the e-mail, you already know what it will say. Someone has been sending you hateful words for two weeks.
Your mind fearfully churns the possibilities.
Could it be your neighbour? Perhaps it is the clerk at the grocery store across the street…or is it a stranger halfway across the world? Your mind sinks to a darker place. What if it’s a co-worker?
The sender remains faceless. You don’t know where to go. You are a victim of virtual harassment.
Virtual harassment disturbs the e-office in the same way workplace harassment disturbs a physical office, but it often goes overlooked. Elizabeth Carll, PhD, from the American Psychological Association, states that virtual harassment traumatizes victims on a much larger magnitude than its non-virtual counterpart. The emotional impact of online harassment, Carll explains, induces “high levels of ongoing stress, anxiety, fear, nightmares, shock and disbelief, helplessness, hyper-vigilance, changes in eating, and sleeping difficulties”.
Carll explains adverse effects are amplified because of the eternal nature of the web. The internet exists everywhere, anyone can see it and the content never goes away. E-harassment victims can therefore feel unable to “escape to safety”, as Carll puts it.
What exactly is e-harassment?
In the simplest words, e-harassment constitutes any form of online communication (whether an action, speech or text), that makes another employee feel uncomfortable or threatened. Sometimes, a joke that may seem harmless to one person, could deeply offend another co-worker.
In fact, in a virtual workplace, the risk of e-harassment can intensify even more. Because team diversity is such an intrinsic part of virtual work, everyone will have a different outlook on certain words and actions based on his or her background and beliefs. The team leader must therefore, identify such differences and make sure no one gets hurt.
Examples of e-harassment
Some examples of e-harassment include sending abusive, threatening or obscene emails or texts. In addition, emails sent in masses can also qualify as harassment—what researchers Louise Ellison and Yaman Akdeniz from the Criminal Law Review call “electronic sabotage”. E-harassment also includes cyberstalking, where the tormentor exposes a victim’s personal information, or abuses the victim’s contact information to subscribe to numerous harmful online sites.
There are an endless amount of things that can create an unsafe virtual work environment for virtual employees. This makes it all the more important for team leaders to consider means of preventing virtual harassment.
How do I prevent e-Harassment at my workplace?
Safety, safety, safety. All employees should feel safe within the virtual team. Everyone should work without the fear of being harassed and furthermore, work knowing that action will be taken if harassment does occur. Here are some tips that could make your virtual office a safer place :
1) Create legally enforceable policies –With assistance from an attorney, create (and circulate) a detailed document which clearly communicates harassment circumstances, penalties, complaint procedures, remedies and other important aspects of how your company will deal with this issue. The Canadian Human Right Commission offers a great example for developing anti-harassment policies: https://www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca/eng/content/publications.
2) Educate your team: Knowledge is power. Explain your policy document in terms everyone will understand and retain. Hold engaging online seminars to address any questions from the team. You can also hold online workshops that promote team cohesion—this will help facilitate a safer and tolerant workplace.
3) Clear and open communication: Your team members should not be afraid to approach you if they experience any form of harassment. This means you, as the team leader, should be directly available to your team. You may work 9am -5pm, but harassment can occur 24/7.
4) Virtual Anonymity box—Employees enduring harassment may feel guilt or fear. Create a safe and anonymous space (perhaps an anti-harassment email address), where employees can send questions, concerns and seek advice. This allows continuous support. If the nature of the situation is serious, you can act immediately.
5) Communicate that you care: Keep your team up to date with new regulations and definitions of harassment according to your state, province or country. Also send out reminders and newsletters outlining when anti-harassment workshops will be held. Make attendance mandatory.
Here are some useful links that explain e-harassment/harassment legislature based by country (and jurisdiction for the US link).
What are your thoughts on virtual work and the possibility of harassment? What other actions can you think of to prevent it from occurring?